Make Football Players’ Safety a Priority

By Arne Duncan and Dr. Myron Rolle. Published in the Indianapolis Star. LINK HERE.

When the NCAA met last month in Indianapolis, it took up some of the most pressing issues facing college sports. But there’s one area outside the NCAA’s purview that deserves a good public hearing – the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the College Football Playoff.

The CFP has generated more than a billion dollars for universities’ athletics programs in just four years. It should devote a portion of that lucrative revenue to address two major college football priorities identified by university presidents and college sports leaders: improving player health and safety, and increasing coaching diversity.

The CFP should follow the model of the NCAA, which devotes resources to these national challenges, using money generated by its March Madness basketball tournament.

Under a groundbreaking partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense, the NCAA has invested $27.5 million since 2014 in research and related efforts aimed at developing better concussion treatment and policy. This initiative has already led to changes in college football playing rules and in the operation of football team practices, as well as the development of concussion protocols. The NCAA will continue funding this initiative at $2 million annually.

And under a recent settlement awaiting court approval, the NCAA will spend an additional $70 million on a medical monitoring program for current and former college athletes.

The NCAA also devotes resources to develop more diversity in athletics leadership—including programs for football coaches that are funded at higher levels than those targeting other sports.

Last month, the CFP Board rejected the Knight Commission’s call to use a modest portion of bowl revenues to protect player health and safety and boost coaching diversity, saying that other organizations, like the NCAA and Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and institutions, should be the ones to show leadership on these issues.

The CFP, which has generated more than $1.6 billion in its first four years of existence, operates independently of the NCAA. However, it shares a common responsibility of annually distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in postseason championship revenues.

The vast majority of the CFP revenues are directed to the 10 conferences that compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which in turn send the bulk of the revenue on to their member schools. Independent universities like Notre Dame also receive a cut.

While FBS schools use some of these revenues to provide medical care for their athletes, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics believes a national commitment of revenues from the football championship is needed to address the sport’s serious health and safety issues, which are only becoming more urgent with the release of new peer-reviewed studies on sport-specific injuries. That commitment should not just be left up to a reliance on the NCAA’s national basketball championship revenues or the choices of individual athletic programs.

The College Football Playoff’s failure to devote a meaningful share of its revenues for national health and safety priorities for athletes is hard to justify, especially with schools shelling out millions for new stadiums, football coaching salaries and buyouts, private jets for recruiting, and other excesses.

The CFP has an opportunity to show leadership in addressing the mounting cynicism that many Americans now feel about big-time college sports. At an October 2017 meeting of the Knight Commission, NCAA President Mark Emmert shared that recent NCAA polling showed that nearly 80 percent of people believed “big universities put money ahead of their student-athletes.”

The Knight Commission also is calling on the CFP to allocate at least one penny of every dollar from the postseason football playoff — approximately $4.5 million — to support programs to develop more diversity among college football coaches. Most of the players on teams that compete in the CFP are young men of color, yet racial minorities are woefully underrepresented among the sport’s head and assistant coaches.

Over the past year, the Knight Commission has urged the College Football Playoff board of managers to adopt these two changes, but the CFP has rejected our recommendations.

Clearly, this is a question of will, not of means. At a time when 12 FBS schools are paying a whopping $70 million-plus in buyouts to fired football coaches, a small investment to make college football safer and more diverse should not be a heavy lift. An added benefit of redirecting some of these national championship revenues would be to reduce the oxygen that is fueling an unsustainable arms race in coaches’ salaries and facilities.

Ultimately, the distribution of money from big-time college football is not just about dollars but about values. Let’s make sure to use the success of the College Football Playoff to get the values right.

Arne Duncan is the former Secretary of Education and the current co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics; Myron Rolle, M.D., a former college football All-American at Florida State, is a Knight Commission member and neurosurgery resident at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital.