The Coming Decline of College and Professional Football; The Resurgence of Track and Field

The decline of college and professional football as we know it is now underway and fast gaining momentum. The reality is undeniable – virtually a “no-brainer.” Here are the key reasons for the trend:

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Football, especially at the college and professional levels, is a dangerous sport. In the professional ranks, football played over a career lasting more than seven years often exacts severe penalties in the form of lifelong disabilities, minor and major. Listen carefully and heed the testimonials of many professional players who retire in their thirties and live the rest of their long lives enduring disability and pain from the injuries and general wear-and-tear suffered during their football careers.

The most recent data regarding the cognitive effects of concussions and repeated head trauma is the most damaging of all to the future of the game. “Better helmet design” is not a viable solution to this problem. One might be tempted to rationalize the problem by invoking the arguments that not all players suffer cognitive issues later in life, and there will always be professional athletes willing to trade the risks for a lucrative career. One might argue that embracing football’s risks is one of the grown-up choices one makes in life – let the athletes decide! But football’s dilemma is not that simple.

Here is what will happen – is already happening – that portends the decline of the sport: Parents will increasingly be unwilling to expose their young students, at the high school level and earlier, to the risks football entails.

Without active high school programs to function as a junior farm system for the colleges and universities, the pool of talented college athletes will diminish. Without enough good athletes participating in high-visibility college/university programs, the professional level will suffer. Simply put, the current popularity and “success” of football at the college and professional levels cannot survive a crumbling foundation at the high school level, and that is precisely the current trend as parents and students weigh the risks and order their life-priorities. The turn-out for high school football has notably declined in the past two years since concussion data has been made public.

MONEY: Yes, the root of much if not all evil! When is the last time you have attended a major college football game? Was it a great experience, well worth the individual ticket price of $40 to $90 for mediocre seats? As a life-long college football fan following, among others, my alma mater, Stanford University, here is a summation of my experiences with the college game:

-Very high ticket prices today even for mediocre seats, most all of which are now “reserved.” Gone are the general admission end-zone seats which were, until recently, readily available on game day for a family-friendly price of $15.

-Want to bring your youngsters to a college game despite the high cost? Gone also are the sun-drenched Saturday afternoon game days at places like Stanford Stadium, the setting for so many of my football memories involving great players and big games. Today, you and your children will more likely than not be filing into a college stadium for a 7 pm game on a cool fall evening – bed-times for your children be damned. For the first several decades of its existence, the old Stanford Stadium seating 80,000 did not even have lights!

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Stadium-goers can thank television, the sports networks, and big money for relegating the truest and most faithful fans to second-class status. Games today are scheduled exclusively for television and the big money the networks bring to the athletic conferences and schools.

-Oh, and speaking of television: For fans attending the game, expect, in addition to exorbitant parking fees these days, lots of dead-time throughout the game in order to parade the line-up of lengthy television commercials. Games today are drawn-out affairs because of this. Not so very long ago, the infrequent sight of television vans outside Stanford Stadium was exciting, indicative of national attention on a particularly important game to be played that afternoon. Today, PAC 12 conference games are routinely televised; no longer is that a plus for the fans in attendance. Rather, it is bad news for the reasons just cited. Bottom line: Too many games on television, too much exposure, too much money in the sport…just TOO much!

-The last, but certainly not the least of issues: The charade of college football as a sport played by “student-athletes” simply cannot be ignored even by the most die-hard of fans. The reality today is that many college/university football programs are more representative of an NFL farm system for aspiring professional athletes than a legitimate student-athlete endeavor. Graduation rates for football and basketball players are pitifully poor for many colleges and universities – even some “elite” ones. I am pleased that Stanford University is not one of those whose athletes are “in school” to play ball. Stanford runs an exemplary athletic program despite being caught in the cross-currents of today’s money/sports realities.

The Money

-A sure indicator of the excesses inherent in today’s system is the fact that the highest paid employee at the big football schools is…the head football coach! Salaries in the millions of dollars are becoming common. Neither the presidents of those same universities nor renowned Nobel laureate professors on the faculty come close to earning as much as the head coach at the big football factories. Success on the football field translates into big bucks for the school from influential alumni donors who live vicariously vis-à-vis football success on game-day, ethics be-damned. The whole situation is really quite pathetic and hypocritical! Click on the two links at the end of this post to previous blog posts of mine which cover the corrosive effects of money on football today in more detail.

Take Care of Your Body, Especially the Brain and Knees!

A00680F01[1]Have you ever sat in a doctor’s exam room waiting for his/her arrival and noticed the anatomy charts which are often present on the walls? Inevitably I am amazed at the miraculous intricacies that reside within the eye, the inner ear, and even the knee. The knee: A remarkable example of bio-engineering, is it not? Whenever I see the “knee picture,” I cannot help but shudder in revulsion at the thought of the damage a bad football hit can and very frequently does inflict on such a remarkable natural creation. Were I the parent of young boys, I would discourage them from playing tackle football for the sake of their knees alone. I am the grandfather of two young boys, quite certain that their parents will not support football as a sporting activity for either of them. What are the alternatives?

The Resurgence of Track and Field for Youngsters

I heard a news report the other day that high-school enrollments in track and field now exceed declining football enrollments for the very first time. Nothing could please me more as a former high-school hurdler on the San Mateo High track team…way back in 1958! The present trend reflects both the new concerns with football and a re-discovery of the virtues inherent in the sport of track and field. Youth soccer has already made great inroads as an alternative to football, but I see track and field as the long-ignored venue that offers even more variety and opportunity to young athletes. I was dismayed while watching the Rio Olympics that so many track events were run to less than capacity crowds. That never was the case in my day and probably would not have occurred in a European Olympic venue. Track has been off the radar screen for a long time in the USA, but all good things have a habit of returning to favor. I believe that track and field’s time has come again as a great alternative to youth football.

When I was in high school, track and field had an avid following in this country. In 1962, my father and I attended the two-day track meet held in Palo Alto, California between the USA and the Soviet Union. The competition engendered huge national/international interest and filled the old Stanford Stadium to its 80,000 seat capacity for both days. I was thrilled to witness the Russian star, Valery Brumel, set the then-world record in the high-jump at seven feet, five inches.

500c3ff4d4f90.image[1]I was recently surprised when my eldest granddaughter, Megan, announced she was attending track camp this past summer. She has just entered high school this fall and plans to run track, possibly the hurdles – like Grandpa! Megan worked hard all summer on conditioning at track camp, and I was impressed by her dedication and the fact that other of her friends were also going out for track. I suspect Megan and her friends are fashionably riding the cusp of a new wave – the coming resurgence of track and field as a great sport for youngsters – boys and girls. Nothing would please me more.

My Favorite Track Event: The High Hurdles

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Me – Burlingame High Track, 1958                              Liu Xiang – Athens, 2004

 

Click on the links, below, to go to the post archives on my Home page for these pertinent posts:

-College Football Today: Running Toward the Wrong Goal (9/1/13)

-Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students? (11/1/14)

-Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports (2/2/14)

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey: Chasing the Heisman Trophy…and Barry Sanders

Every now and then, a particularly exceptional player surfaces in the ranks of college football. Such a player was the great running back, Barry Sanders, who won college football’s coveted Heisman trophy back in 1988. Sanders was a running back at Oklahoma State University with speed and exceptional quickness, qualities which made him almost impossible to corral on the football field. His reputation was cemented by a stellar career with the NFL’s Detroit Lions; Sanders is regarded as one of the very best ever to play the game…. at any level.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford University’s nationally-ranked football team has a player cast from the same mold as Sanders – sophomore Christian McCaffrey – running back, pass receiver, and punt/kickoff returner par-excellence. Linda and I were at Stanford Stadium last Friday evening to see young McCaffrey set a Stanford single-game school record for total all-purpose yards – 389 yards which included 192 yards rushing on 29 carries. In addition, the young phenom snaked his way through the entire University of California defense for a 49 yard touchdown off a screen pass followed by a 98 yard kickoff return for another score. That first touchdown showcased the Sanders-like balance, elusiveness, and anticipation that made Barry Sanders so unique. The second score highlighted McCaffrey’s flat-out speed as he glimpsed daylight and hit the afterburner, leaving all pursuers in the dust.

Rumors Last Season

There were rumors last season about young McCaffrey who, as an incoming freshman, deeply impressed the entire coaching staff and the other players not only with his ability, but with his mature attitude and work-ethic. Those rumors of something special surfaced early, emanating from spring football camp last year. Stanford head coach David Shaw occasionally played McCaffrey last season as a true freshman, but only in spot situations, preferring wisely not to overwhelm a young, budding talent with Stanford’s complicated offensive schemes. Whenever young Christian did trot out for a play or two, it was invariably with good results. In fact, I recall that on his very first play in the game we saw, he reeled off a long gainer.

As an alum and a long-time follower of Stanford football (since 1960), I have seen them come and seen them go, including some truly great players like Plunkett (Stanford’s only Heisman winner – 1970), Elway, Stenstrom, Luck, Hogan, Gerhart, Nelson, Hill, and Lofton. Sometimes, though, the early program hype does not fully materialize during the ensuing four years.

I wondered about young McCaffrey last year who still had a boyish-look about him, and, yes, talent and good speed….but why did Coach Shaw not utilize him more if he was that good? As this season opened, Stanford lost unexpectedly to Northwestern, and the entire team played poorly. Stanford has since decisively beaten all opponents except for a close loss to Oregon, late on the schedule.

Since the disastrous Northwestern opener, I have been surprised and impressed by two things about this Stanford team beside the fact that they are good:

First: The maturation of McCaffrey as a physical player since last year. He worked hard in the weight room during the off-season to bulk-up, adding an additional thirty pounds of mainly muscle – extra baggage which makes breaking tackles easier, but tends invariably to temper a player’s quickness. Now, as a sophomore, he is very physical going through the line yet more elusive than ever with greater quickness and flat-out speed than last year. In that respect, alone, he is an anomaly. There are few players around with the flat-out speed to catch him on his way to the end-zone. Very impressive, and it has been a long time since Stanford had a back who, like O.J. Simpson at USC, long ago, will not be caught from behind!

Second: I noticed Stanford’s team demeanor throughout televised games when the cameras routinely scanned the sidelines. I saw unmistakable signs of great team chemistry on display. McCaffrey is partly responsible for that, I am certain. It is a rare “star” player who is truly likable and revered by his teammates without reservation. In that vein, today’s local sports page highlighted some pertinent comments made by Coach Shaw:

-After Friday’s Cal game: “I haven’t seen anybody in America like this kid.”

-“Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker – the kid’s just truly special. And our guys know that, and they take a lot of pride blocking for him.”

-Earlier in the year, Shaw commented in a half-time TV interview that his team had a good first half because they were playing hard and they were playing for each other. I believe the last part of Shaw’s comment fully explains the team chemistry – a credit to the individuals on the roster and a reflection on their young Heisman candidate, Christian McCaffrey.

A quick vignette to illustrate the point: Barry Sanders, Jr. – the son of the great Barry Sanders who holds the collegiate season record for all-purpose yards – ironically is a reserve running back to the man who is chasing his father’s long-standing record as well as the Heisman – young McCaffrey.

The junior Sanders is a talented back, but not in the same unique mold as his father. Earlier in the season, when young Sanders came in to spell McCaffrey and scored on a long run from scrimmage, he was mobbed by his teammates. The sincerity of their joy for young Sanders was evident. The season has been that way all along, and I credit McCaffrey’s presence and the coaching staff for nurturing the elusive team chemistry that is the mark of champions.

Out of curiosity, last night, I googled some of young McCaffrey’s recruiting film clips from his stellar high school career at Valor Christian High in Colorado. What I saw on film was the prelude to greatness which is currently unfolding at Stanford Stadium. One of young McCaffrey’s high school kickoff touchdown returns looked like a carbon-copy of what we saw last Friday night against the Cal Bears.

Reel after reel of great football plays and McCaffrey’s matter-of-fact reaction to his own success were the dominant themes. After a score, he politely hands the ball to the officials, modestly accepts inevitable congratulations from his teammates, and heads for the sidelines. I never once saw the “number 1” finger in the air, chest thumping, or strutting of any kind – and that self-effacing style is also evident at Stanford. How refreshing is that, in this age of self-promotion on the football field? I fully understand why McCaffrey’s teammates consider it a privilege to be blocking for him – all game long. Barring injury, he is on his way to becoming a truly great player as well as a fine example of what collegiate football should be all about!

Football Moxie and a Sprinter’s Speed:
A Rare Combination and a Great McCaffrey Story

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To understand how a Christian McCaffrey “happens along,” it helps to know something of his fascinating lineage:

His maternal grandfather is David Sime – silver medalist at 100 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and former world record holder in the 100 and 220 yard sprints. David Sime was the world’s fastest human in the time-frame of 1954/56.

Sime’s personal story is fascinating in itself, but suffice it to say he graduated from Duke University medical school as an ophthalmologist after missing the gold medal in the 100 meters by a hair to the German “Thief of Starts,” Armin Hary. He fathered several children, one of whom is Lisa Sime McCaffrey who graduated from Stanford after starring there on the women’s soccer team. While at Stanford, she met and subsequently married a 6-foot-five, lanky, sure-handed pass receiver on Stanford’s football team named Ed McCaffrey – Christian’s father. The senior McCaffrey was an All-American at Stanford and enjoyed a notable career in the NFL as a Denver Bronco. Ed McCaffrey is the owner of three Super Bowl rings.

Hearing the McCaffrey name (often) last Friday night at Stanford Stadium rekindled still-vibrant memories of sunny, Saturday afternoons at Stanford Stadium in the late 1980’s. I still hear the echoes of long-time stadium announcer Ed McCauley’s play-call floating above the crowd’s roar: “….the pass complete to Ed McCaffrey for 24 yards and a Stanford first down….”

Never forgot the sights, never forgot the sounds, never forgot the great ones.
Never will. Good luck to Christian McCaffrey…and GO STANFORD!

Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students?

Just when I begin to question whether fact IS stranger than fiction, something like the recent news from the University of North Carolina comes along to verify my belief that “you just cannot make this stuff up!” The New York Times reported on October 22 that an investigation has concluded that athletes at U.N.C., including football players, had been receiving course grades (A’s and B’s) and credits for classes that were non-existent – imaginary entities whose primary intent was to keep marginal students and “student”-athletes academically eligible.

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Nudging this revelation even further into the realm of “unbelievable” is the allegation that this has been going on at U.N.C. for years. To quote the Times article, “…between 1993 and 2011, two employees in the university’s African and Afro-American studies department presided over what was a “shadow curriculum” designed to help struggling students – many of them Tar Heels athletes – stay afloat.”

Although the existence of these “shadow” classes and their bogus course credits had been public knowledge for three years, it has only recently come to light that members of athletic teams benefitted “disproportionately.” I’ll bet!

It is always interesting – no, fascinating – to watch large organizations whose hand has been caught in the cookie-jar avow that the larger management of that entity “just did not know” what was taking place. Penn State University was yet another tower of academia that recently claimed to be largely oblivious to the sexual abuse scandal that threatened the university and…especially, its beloved football program.

Sometimes I just want to shout-out, “What kind of butterballs do you take us (the public) for?” If upper management is truly unaware of major transgressions taking place within their organization, then they are only slightly less culpable than if they knew and did nothing about it. At some level of responsibility, ignorance is equivalent to incompetence, and incompetence of that kind is grounds for dismissal.

 There Are Things Worse than Tar On the Heel!

By not watching where they stepped, it seems that the Tar Heels have put their foot into something more disgusting and smelly than mere tar. On the one hand, I feel badly for the vast majority of students, faculty, and administration at U.N.C. who will undeservedly suffer from a tarnished reputation, as a result. On the other hand, the old saying that “we have met the enemy and he is us” implies that perpetrators of unscrupulous conduct are often aided and abetted by complacent colleagues who remained too silent for too long.

Sports, and football in particular, are an effective way for a college or university to promote their public image and to encourage alumni donations…and that is a shame. It says a lot about our human frailties, particularly when we come to suspect that some student-athletes we see on Saturday afternoon are only half of what their name implies, yet we proceed to brush reality aside and continue to relish the deception.

How About a “Freedom of Information”
Mandate on Colleges and Universities?

Here is what I propose: During those slick NCAA campus promotional pieces televised for each school during college football and basketball half-times, how about making it mandatory to reveal graduation rates over the last five years for the combined team members of the sport being televised? In addition, schools should be required to list the academic majors by category of all participants over those five years (graduates and non-graduates, alike) so viewers can come to their own conclusions regarding the integrity of each school and their athletic programs.

For audiences who care, such a mandate should readily identify the hypocrites of college sports, those institutions which have no compunctions while abandoning academics for the sake of major sports glory… and revenue.

The University of California at Berkeley basks in a long-standing reputation for academic excellence, yet its football (51 per-cent) and basketball (46 per-cent) graduation rates rank last in the Pac-12 athletic conference. Even these sad graduation rates can be claimed only after climbing several points from those of the previous year. Supposedly, admission requirements to Cal are very stringent?

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I love college football when it is played with genuine student-athletes and not so much when it is not. It is reasonable to concede a slightly lower high school GPA for entering students who also offer special talents honed on the athletic field. The same is true for students who bring with them special achievements in the arts. However, graduation rates at the 50% level for athletes imply an academic “pass” in the school’s admission office. The awarding of courtesy grades and credits in phantom college courses, as appears to be the case for some athletes and non-athletes at U.N.C., falls into an even more egregious category, it seems to me.

Today, there is discussion in some quarters about colleges and universities taking undue advantage of their athletes because of the vast sums of money flowing into the institutions. One could make a case for that claim. On the other hand, the star athletes who attract big bucks for their school are rewarded handsomely at graduation (or after athletic eligibility expires) as they are welcomed into the NFL or the NBA with multi-million dollar contracts. In addition, first-team athletes playing big-time college football and basketball inevitably receive full-ride scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars. For true student-athletes, that represents real value; for the rest, it’s merely free room and board while training for their professional sports careers. While some major league baseball teams, like the World Champion San Francisco Giants, have their own farm system in which to develop new, young players, colleges and universities unfortunately constitute the lone, de-facto farm system for professional football and basketball – a very cozy arrangement for all involved. A significant portion of today’s expensive college football tickets already goes to subsidize the training of future professional athletes. The very notion of pay-for-play in college sports as recompense for a system gone-bad is as cock-eyed as the behaviors which brought college sports to its present dilemma in the first place vis-à-vis the questionable “student”-athlete.

 Too Much Money in Sports – Professional and College

There was a time, not that long ago, when college football was fun to watch from inside the stadium. There were no television cameras present to slow the tempo of the contest with interminable commercials back then. Today, most major college football games are routinely televised…follow the money. The result: Long, drawn-out games and game-times which completely cater to the television networks. The message to loyal fans who miss the traditional, sun-drenched Saturday afternoon games: Deal with it or get lost! Back then, real student-athletes participated, parking was free, and tickets were available and affordable even for a young family. That was then, and this is now, and these things no longer hold true.

All of this makes me sad. Making me even sadder are the lengths to which some eminent colleges and universities will go to promote and profit from big-time college sports. Saddest of all are those schools which will even compromise their academic integrity in order to play the game.