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By Philip Revzin

NEW YORK, 1 JANUARY 2016 — As millions of Americans settle onto their couches to watch the five (!) college football bowl games on New Year’s Day, the college championship game on January 11th, and the Super Bowl professional championship game on February 7th, it’s timely to ponder two inextricable threads running through this sector of our culture: money and violence. 

Recently I had the privilege, due to the kindness of friends, to watch the New York Giants play the Carolina Panthers. I was in a private suite, one of more than 200 in MetLife Stadium, the $1.6 billion edifice opened in 2010. With both the Giants and Jets using the facility, there are folks eating sushi and drinking beer and watching replays on giant TVs in heated comfort pretty much every week during the five-month season.

The Giants wound up losing despite a furious second half comeback, marred by wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s expulsion and later suspension for a violent helmet to helmet hit on cornerback Josh Norman. A Carolina player had been carrying around a baseball bat during warm-ups and his teammates had had words with Beckham. This incident caused more than the usual concern, coming as it did just before the release of Concussion, a powerful Will Smith movie based on the true story of how a Nigerian-born medical examiner linked all those hits in pro football to a brain disease that has afflicted a large number of former players. 

Alec Baldwin (former NFL doctor) and Will Smith (Dr. Bennet Omalu)
in a scene from
Photo: Columbia Pictures

The combination of luxury and violence has fairly recently spread to college football, once a bastion of shivering alumni in raccoon coats standing on the sidelines cheering on student athletes and occasionally lifting a hip flask of brandy. Those days are long gone, as chronicled in Billion-Dollar Ball, a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert M. Gaul released this summer, but whose revelations are being added to practically every day.

Colleges and universities are participating in an arms race of sorts, pampering football players and enticing the top high school 17-year-olds to join their programs, which raise millions for the schools. Mr. Gaul describes the $42 million "academic support center" for athletes at the University of Oregon in Eugene, which features a three-story mural of Albert Einstein composed of five thousand images of Oregon athletes stitched together. It was all paid for by Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penelope. More recently, according to Will Hobson and Steven Rich in the Washington Post, top-ranked Clemson University is planning a $55 million complex for its team that will include a 9-hole miniature golf course, sand volleyball courts, laser tag equipment, a movie theater, a bowling alley and a barbershop. 

In addition to wealthy patrons like the Knights, college football is funded by a gusher of cash from TV rights and fans. Mr. Gaul details a frankly shocking tax loophole that allows even public universities to charge thousands of dollars above the ticket price for games, and for the purchasers to take 80% of this off their income taxes as a charitable deduction. Bowl games, which give the schools a nice chunk of TV and gate money, have proliferated. This year’s crop includes the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl. All this money pays for not just fancier and fancier stadiums and those athletic centers staffed by armies of tutors so athletes can meet grade requirements, but also seven-figure salaries for coaches that often make them the highest paid public employees in their state.

The top college players, of course, move on to the NFL, where the money flows even faster and the repetitive head injuries get even more severe. The epidemic of former players left essentially disabled – dramatized by the plight of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in Concussion –  has been known for years: the NFL last year settled a lawsuit brought by thousands of former players for what could be as much as $1 billion when all claims are finalized. But the issue pops back into the news from time to time.

Giants legend Frank Gifford’s family said in November that a post-mortem examination of his brain showed he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The star had died in August at age 84. Among many hits in his career, he was flattened by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in 1960, an incident that received wide publicity.

CTE is the centerpiece of Concussion, which while dramatizing the life of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who diagnosed it in Mr. Webster after the player’s death, has prompted discussion of an issue previously swept under the rug. The NFL, which scoffed at Dr. Omalu’s findings for years, did reach the settlement with former players, and has instituted some rule changes to lessen, though by no means eliminate, head injuries. Players, including former Giants punter Steve Weatherford, have been appearing on national television saying they won’t let their kids play contact football until they’re 18 and can decide for themselves if it’s all worth it.

None of this is likely to change Americans’ love of this inherently violent sport. The MetLife luxury suites will remain full and the football programs will continue to wag the dog at most colleges. The sad truth is that the problem likely can’t be solved. Short of banning contact in football, which won’t happen, the issue can only be managed. So far it’s been managed badly. Maybe more sunshine from books and movies can help a little.

Headline image: Will Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu, in a scene from Columbia Pictures' Concussion.

Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football
By Gilbert M. Gaul

Hardcover: 272 pages
Viking (August  2015)
ISBN-10: 067001673X
ISBN-13: 978-0670016730

Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on the film 'The Big Short'.

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