There's really nothing quite like college football season. The live marching bands, packed stands (okay, maybe not so much in our stadium, but still), innovative offenses and defenses that won't be stolen by the NFL for another five years and players playing for the love of the game, a college education and a chance at a better future! Well... about that last one.
This isn't really a post to get into discussion on several of the controversies plaguing college football- reports coming out of North Carolina that players there are reading at a fifth grade level or worse, the NCAA's claim that it should own Ed O'Bannon's likeness for all eternity, players and recruits receiving shadowy payoffs (we can pretend that's only an SEC thing, and it may very well be much bigger there than anywhere else, but then Terrelle Pryor turns up to a team meeting in a new Nissan 350z- Where athletic departments have money, it's happening), or the annual "moving on" of players to meet the roster limit. This isn't even really a post to discuss unionization or four year scholarships- people far more informed than I have waxed poetic on each of these topics, so if I touch on them here it will be briefly. However, there is one big issue in the current NCAA agreement that is both not talked about enough and very much in the TCU wheelhouse- what happens to players who get seriously injured while playing for a university?
Older TCU fans will have heard of Kent Waldrep, but as we're generally a younger generation at Frogs O' War a bit of an explanation is in order. On October 26th, 1974 a pretty dismal TCU team headed up to Birmingham to take on one of Bear Bryant's juggernaut teams- who were the defending national champions to boot. Down 7-0 in the second quarter, TCU tailback Kent Waldrep took a handoff to the right, had his legs cut out from under him and landed hard on the back of his head. Waldrep was paralyzed from the shoulders down on impact, and has never again stood on his own feet. The community of TCU and Alabama rallied around Kent for a while, and indeed coach Bear Bryant of Alabama not only urged his friend George Steinbrenner to contribute to Kent's medical bills, but also stayed in regular contact with Kent throughout his life until the old coach died in 1983. Without the insurance and medical bills taken care of as players have to day, Coach Bryant went above and beyond to make sure that life would be as good as it could possibly be for Kent Waldrep- and we should all be grateful to him for that. The University of Alabama went even farther than that, as they let both of Waldrep's sons attend the university on the Bear Bryant scholarship, which is generally a scholarship reserved for the children of former Alabama players- there's no denying that Alabama went above and beyond to take care of Waldrep and his family for a situation that they were not at fault in, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the university as a result of that.
That's a happy note and would be a good place to end the story, but the Waldrep situation goes deeper than that, particularly in today's college football world- where millions of dollars are being collected from TV networks and merchandise based on the efforts of players who are doing their damndest to make the university proud. We say that their payment comes in the form of a free (or at least severely discounted, depending on in state tuition rates and all that) education that many would never be able to afford otherwise, the opportunity to be a part of a community and develop their skills for life and for a select few a shot at the NFL. When catastrophes have befallen players lately- Eric LeGrand of Rutgers and Devon Walker of Tulane spring immediately to mind- the universities have done what they're legally able to do to help out. Rutgers ensured that LeGrand would have a job at Rutgers in broadcasting, as was his dream, likely in perpetuity, while Tulane has set up the Devon's Den program and seems happy to continue to support him in his continuing academic pursuit toward a masters degree in Cell and Molecular Biology. All well and good, and though he wasn't the coach of the Frogs at the time (or even in high school yet), coach Patterson also made a large financial contribution to Waldrep and his family to buy a van that would enable Waldrep to get from place to place, saying "Once a frog, always a frog. Tell Kent that."- but this isn't just an article to talk about what a great guy coach Patterson is (that's for pretty much every other article on our fine website) or to talk about the charities and help that universities have offered players who have been seriously injured. It's more about what they haven't offered, and this is the biggest point that the players who have talked about unions have in their favor in my book- sustained medical care from the universities after their college career is over.
In 1997 Kent Waldrep challenged the student athlete tag by claiming that he was an employee of the university at the time of his injury, and thus TCU should be liable to pay him workman's comp for his injury. The initial ruling of the court was that Waldrep was eligible for financial aid, but upon appeal the state appeals court ruled that financial aid did not constitute income, Waldrep was not promised payment (Things might have been different if he'd played at SMU) and as such he was not an employee. The legality of the decision is sound, I'm sure, but the impact of it is that the only people who are responsible for the long term well being of injured athletes are the athletes and their families themselves- and this happens a lot more than anyone is comfortable admitting. The NCAA will cover the cost of medical treatment once the magic threshold of $90,000 is reached, but for less than that it's really up to each university to take care of its athletes in the way it deems best- and with the growing concerns about concussions and head trauma that have been arising lately that's not enough.
And so we find ourselves in the weird situation we currently do. The NCAA is currently losing or projected to lose a number of suits that could spell the end of their amateur athlete ideal, and it may end up with players being paid for use of their likeness, collecting a stipend, havintheir education wait for them whenever they want to come back, or even being paid to come to a certain school over another like in the SMU days. This is very divisive stuff that people on both sides will fight for years and decades as the true definition of the NCAA's amateurism gets hammered out. The one issue that both sides should be much more proactive in pursuing, however, is to ensure that the men who wear the jersey to represent our school and sacrifice their bodies for our universities have those bodies looked after properly after their days of playing are done, so that they're not left depending on the generosity of others for their continued well being. These men who we live vicariously through, sharing in their triumphs and failures, are owed more than that.
To support Kent Waldrep and others like him, see the College Football Assistance Fund (Chris Del Conte is on the advisory board and Coach Patterson has been a Platinum, Gold and Silver sponsor). And know that whatever side of the college union/payment issue you side upon, there is common ground that both sides need to strive for.