New Book Exposes Dark Side of College Football

by on September 11, 2023

Fans Favor Denial Over Demanding Health Reforms

When we think about the dangers of college and pro football, brain injuries caused by collisions come to mind. The NFL and NCAA have convinced fans to ignore how playing football reduces life expectancy and causes post-career traumas for thousands each year.

But the health risks are even worse than we know. As Irv Muchnick shows in his powerful new book,  Without Helmets or Shoulder Pads: The American Way of Death in Football Conditioning, unpaid college players die each year from intensive non-contact drills. These drills resemble marine boot camps rather than an activity for student-athletes. And they are conducted as if targeted to marine recruits, not college students.

We know big money controls college football more than ever. But it’s not just the Alabama’s and Georgia’s.  Muchnick’s expose of university wrongdoing at Northwestern and Cal shows the hypocrisy and exploitation of student athletes is even worse at elite academic institutions.

Ignoring Health Risks

Muchnick reveals a lot of troubling information. In fact, he might have included a trigger warning for Cal fans. What he exposes about its football program under Sonny Dykes—now a “star” coach at TCU– will make Cal grads even more distraught about the team’s recent history.

Muchnick focuses on Ted Agu, a Cal player who had a sickle cell trait that made him vulnerable to intensive physical trauma. Cal coaches knew about Agu’s vulnerability. But they ignored it. He died as a result.

Agu’s death unleashed a massive Cal coverup. A torrential downpour of lies designed to protect Cal at the expense of the victim’s family. Key to the coverup was the lie that Agu’s sickle cell trait was unrelated to his death. The facts were undisputed—yet Cal’s Athletic Director and other officials chose lies and denial.

Unfortunately, Muchnick describes how the the San Francisco Chronicle failed to expose Cal’s coverup. Instead, the newspaper best positioned to hold Cal accountable protected the school. It’s a good lesson for those wondering why only independent journalist Muchnick was reporting on it; the mainstream sports media is often so connected to local teams that it avoids negative stories.

None of the coaches responsible for killing Ted Agu had their careers negatively impacted. Muchnick goes into great detail on Agu’s case and makes the University of California at Berkeley look very bad.

Unlike Cal, Northwestern combined abusive and deadly training tactics with a winning football team. The recent hazing scandal that led to the firing of a popular coach was not the first time Northwestern’s football program made headlines. Muchnick goes back to a player’s death in 2001. His book came too late to include the recent scandal but the causes of both were the same: an elite academic institution so eager to join the big football powers that is disregarded the health and safety of players.

A Path to Improvement?

Muchnick offers little hope for reforming the system to better protect young athletes. The “opportunity” families see for kids to obtain generational wealth by playing football is too strong. This is particularly true among black families, who see other roads to success limited.

Could a safety campaign for youth and college football make a difference? It’s hard to be optimistic. Muchnick quotes Alex Manning, a sociologist who studies the dynamic of racism, inequality, families and youth sports, who says “Especially in the South, football has become that rare open space and institution for Black youth-centered activity. It is where young African-American men can build recognition and attain some agency in their lives.”

60% of NFL players and half NCAA Division 1 football players are Black.

Muchnick notes that it used to be commonly believed that curtailing smoking would not happen despite the known health risks. Yet an all out national campaign slashed smoking from 42% in 1964 to 12% today. Making football conditioning safer can be done.

I think the recent hazing scandal at Northwestern and similar events might get universities to stop employing abusive coaches. And that will help young athletes. But football’s connection with gambling has made it the nation’s most popular sport—despite it being far and away the most dangerous.

Irv Muchnick has performed a valuable public service by writing this book. Fans may want to ignore the brutality leveled against young athletes but thanks to Muchnick the facts about what can happen are available to those interested.

Irv Muchnick will be discussing his book at Books, Inc in Berkeley on October 5.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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