NCAA Reform Through Healthcare

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Money and sports: These are two institutions that a considerable portion of the American populace value over all others. The former is nothing new, and even a driving force in the formation of this as an independent nation. But the latter is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Sports in general and football specifically are no longer a distraction from life. In many cases, football is treated as life. It stands to reason, then, that money and football are intertwined.

For fans, obsession with football manifests in record spending on team merchandise, taxes to build NFL stadiums, excessive rights fee for cable providers to broadcast more games than ever. But for those who truly dedicate their lives to football–the players themselves–the intersection of sport and money is much less cut-and-dry.

NCAA reform is an increasingly hot-button issue; so much so, it’s one of those rare items that a new cycle of headlines won’t make the public move on from. Sweeping changes are coming to college football, and have already begun in the form of free meals and autonomy.

But opponents of the NCAA demand more. They’re not wrong that the multi-billion-dollar organization can invest more into the athletes themselves, but the suggestion that simple pay-for-play is the answer is overly simplistic.

In Thursday’s New York Times is a must-read feature by Juliet Macur that shines a harsh but necessary light on the need for NCAA reform in college football.

The article, focusing on the downfall of former North Carolina offensive lineman Ryan Hoffman, is a tough read. It adds a human face to a reality from which we are too easily detached, which is America’s Pastime is violent and could possibly have far-reaching consequences.

Receiving minor league-level compensation doesn’t resolve any long-term effects the game could have on players. Any of us working middle class-paying jobs know how far $40,000 a year stretches, and it surely won’t buoy a 22-year-old to 23, much less make a dent in his 40s for someone like Hoffman.

Remedying the practices that result in serious head trauma is the first major NCAA reform college football needs to take on. Football may not have contributed to Hoffman’s case specifically, but until the sport is safer and more cognizant of head injuries, there will always be that negative possibility.

Now, as that massive undertaking of making the sport less dangerous is afoot, the next major NCAA reform is an investment of the billions America’s collective obsession with the sport generates into long-term healthcare for the players.

I’m not broaching new ground with this suggestion. On the contrary: In 2013, I talked with former Arizona Wildcats linebacker Jake Fischer about NCAA reform. Fischer was one of the first active NCAA athletes to join former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit.

From Fischer’s own mouth, he emphasized the importance of the NCAA and its member institutions investing in a long-term healthcare program for its athletes. Yet, somehow, this idea seems to be in the background of the reform debate.

Long-term healthcare needs to be at the forefront of the NCAA reform discussion. It addresses both of the two primary players, money and football.