Success of Lumberjacks coincides with tough questions about football

We’re not exactly known as a football school here at Northern Arizona University (NAU), but if recent events are any indication, that could be changing. In the Oct. 19 homecoming game, NAU defeated Idaho State University, the team’s fifth victory this season against only two losses. Depending on how the final four games play out, it’s possible the NAU football program will secure its first Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoff appearance in a decade — only its fourth overall. Regardless of your personal interest in sports, or lack thereof, the recent success of the NAU Lumberjacks is important for two reasons. First, because that success has meant, and will mean, more money being diverted to the football program, particularly during the university’s current enrollment boom. Second, because it comes at a time when we are learning more and more disturbing things about the connection between football and brain damage.

Before continuing, it should be remembered that NAU, like most other schools in the FCS, spends almost nothing on its football program compared to the massive expenses of the more prestigious Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) colleges. Even low-end FBS schools accrue expenses in the 10 million dollar range, and the FBS’ biggest spender, the University of Alabama, has a program cost equal to more than $120 million. Against those examples, NAU’s fiscal year (FY) 2014 football budget of a little over $440,000 seems utterly insignificant.

And yet, that’s still $100,000 more than NAU spent on football last fiscal year, an increase that can likely be attributed to the Lumberjacks’ near-miss in last season’s playoff race, along with the new academic year’s staggering influx of new freshmen and their glorious tuition checks. Head Coach Jerome Souers, who has overseen practically every moment of NAU football success going back to 1998, is budgeted to make $180,000 in FY 2014, a $50,000 step up from last year. Souers, along with Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Lisa Campos, is in NAU’s higher pay grade; the only people who make more than them are those in upper administration, whereas the salaries of professors rarely even come close. These increases haven’t necessarily come at the expense of academic programs, but it seems clear that NAU intends to put more of a financial emphasis on sports, football in particular, than it has in the past.

On Oct. 8, PBS’ Frontline aired a two-hour program called “League of Denial,” an investigation into the prevalence of brain damage among football players, specifically a horrific disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and the long-standing efforts of the National Football League (NFL) to deny and discredit the science linking CTE to common football injuries such as concussions. Frontline‘s disturbing presentation comes in the middle of an ongoing NFL self-evaluation that has seen rule changes and new medical procedures designed to better protect players and prevent the potentially life-destroying effects of CTE. This newfound attention to safety has also been seen at the college level. NAU, for its part, has been chosen this season to test a teleconcussion robot designed by the medical research group the Mayo Clinic. The robot supposedly allows a player suspected of having a concussion to be remotely evaluated by a neurologist somewhere else. And yet, many former players are publicly saying that they wouldn’t let their own kids play football today — increased safety or not.

Look, I’m a big sports fan, and I particularly love football. That being said, I have to ask if it’s completely ethical for NAU to be financially revitalizing its football program in 2013. Increased safety is great, but when you get down to it, football is still a game that requires large people to hit other large people very hard. At what point does it become ridiculous to emphasize player safety in a sport predicated on the concept of two helmets smashing together? How many people have to destroy their families with irrational depression and anger, routinely forget where they are, succumb to crippling drug addictions and finally commit suicide before we start seriously considering the consequences of a multi-billion dollar violence industry? Knowing what we do now about concussions and CTE, is it right for us to actively encourage students in high school and college, whose brains are still developing in the first place, to participate in an activity that could ultimately condemn them to dementia and death?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I know is that while I cheer the Lumberjacks on every Saturday, there is always a part of me that can’t help but consider the cost of my entertainment, and the price being paid by these incredibly gifted young people.

Originally published in The Lumberjack (http://jackcentral.com/opinion/2013/10/opinion-success-of-lumberjacks-coincides-with-tough-questions-about-football/)

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