CREDIT: Independent Mail
The bands and their fight songs. The cheerleaders and their chants. The tailgates and the grills and Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Effing Football and Rammer Jammer and Geaux Tigers. College football is back, finally, and with a simple kickoff in Chapel Hill last night, the NCAA’s summer of discontent, the one where it spent months dealing with talks about reform, bungled investigations, lawsuits alleging it failed its athletes on concussions and that it should be paying players, and everything else except what it wants to be focusing on, is over.
We’ll certainly enjoy the games, and there are plenty of great ones on the schedule: Georgia and Clemson on Saturday in Atlanta, Alabama at Texas A&M on September 14, Oklahoma at Notre Dame on October 5, just to name a few that aren’t in the Pantheon of can’t-miss rivalry games each year. We’ll certainly enjoy the players, people like Clowney and Manziel, Devin Gardner and Teddy Bridgewater, Amari Cooper and Todd Gurley. And we’ll certainly enjoy the fact that this is the last year we have to deal with the Bowl Championship Series before we get a long-awaited playoff.
But while the NCAA may think its bad summer is over, and while fans may want to set everything aside to watch football, we can’t, because those issues still matter. So here’s a different preview for college football season — a reminder of the stories that will still play out as the season unfolds even as most of the country remains focused on who’s winning and losing:
Compensation lawsuits: Six current college athletes, all college football players, joined the lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. That case alleges that the NCAA and video game manufacturer EA Sports violated antitrust laws by conspiring to fix athletes’ monetary value at zero by not allowing them to receive compensation for use of their names, images, and likenesses. Federal Judge Claudia Wilken will decide soon whether the case qualifies as a class action, a decision that would open it to thousands of other athletes who feel wronged as well. NCAA officials have claimed that losing the lawsuit would bring the organization to its knees financially, and while that isn’t true, it could bring substantial changes to the amateurism model the NCAA uses today. The final decision is years away unless the two sides reach a settlement, but the case will almost certainly keep developing during the season — and will be a hot topic as big-time football continues to operate as a big-time business.
Concussions: For all the talk about compensation, the bigger threat to the NCAA may be a concussion lawsuit brought by former athletes. The suit alleges that the NCAA, which was formed to protect college athletes, didn’t do enough to protect them from brain injuries. Court documents detailed a striking lack of action from the the NCAA over a decades-long period in which it refused to implement guidelines for how to treat athletes who suffer concussions, and the NCAA still hasn’t standardized its concussion protocols. That litigation won’t be finalized during the season either, but that doesn’t mean concussions won’t be a hot topic: the NCAA has instituted rule changes banning hits that target the head or that lead with the head, and officials will have the authority to eject players who level such hits. After controversies around players returning to the field too quickly last year, a high-profile death of a former star quarterback who suffered multiple concussions, and a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of another player who died after sustaining multiple concussions, will the NCAA and its schools take more precautions this year than in years past? And will the rule changes it has instituted have any effect?
Johnny Manziel: College football’s most polarizing offseason story got a new chapter this week when the NCAA announced that Manziel would be suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s season opener against Rice. Why? That’s anyone’s guess, really, but it has something to do with the investigation the NCAA opened into Manziel’s signing autographs for money, which he denied. Manziel’s off-field antics have made him a polarizing figure, but autograph-gate has opened debates on multiple fronts. The largest is whether Manziel and other college athletes should have a right to profit off of their names, not just when they sign autographs but in other ways, like when they start their own businesses (a practice that isn’t uncommon: one of the plaintiffs in the O’Bannon case signed on because the NCAA forced him to shut down his side business to maintain eligibility). There’s also the issue of race: Manziel is white, and his one-half suspension is softer than those levied on black players like former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant. And while Manziel’s case immediately turned to his personal rights, both Pryor and Bryant’s minor offenses earned them swift condemnation in most football circles. The debate over athletes’ rights has changed in that time, but whether the NCAA and the media viewed Manziel and Pryor differently is worth exploring.
Bye, bye, BCS: The BCS, the organization that oversaw college football’s top bowls and national championship for the past 15 years, is on its way out. That’s a good thing, because it was a terrible way to pick a national champion. The problem is that while a playoff fixes many of the problems the BCS created on the field, it won’t fix many of the problems the BCS created off of it. The big bowl games will still dodge taxes and receive subsidies from taxpayers, all while operating as charities that do very little actual charitable work. Fans and college students are already handing an increasing amount of money to athletic departments to keep them afloat. They don’t need to be subsidizing end-of-season extravaganzas too.
Athletes’ rights: Debates over athletes’ rights don’t just focus on compensation and autographs. The NCAA changed its rules in 2012 to allow schools to offer multi-year scholarships to athletes in an effort to protect kids who get injured on the field. California one-upped the NCAA, passing an Athletes Bill of Rights that requires the largest schools to guarantee a full four-year scholarship to any athlete that gets hurt in competition. A bipartisan duo of lawmakers introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives this month, and while it isn’t likely to go anywhere, it could re-open a debate in state and local governments about whether athletes who get injured deserve the chance to stay in school even if they can’t play sports anymore.
Going green: As we noted yesterday, two environmental groups partnered this month to begin efforts to make college football stadiums more energy efficient. Sporting events require tremendous amounts of energy use, and the U.S. Green Building Coalition and the Green Sports Alliance are hoping to reduce the carbon footprint of stadiums to help the environment (and to help make colleges and universities in general more environmentally conscious). Why should college football fans care? Because climate change is hurting the game of football and its players. Rising temperatures and increasing droughts are making it more dangerous to practice and play outside early in the season and making it harder and more expensive to maintain grass fields. Plus, climate change is threatening beer, and what’s college football without beer to go with it?
Sexual assault at Vanderbilt: Four Vanderbilt football players were kicked off the team when they were arrested on rape charges this month — a fifth was suspended. Rape and football are linked far too often, like last year, when the Steubenville (OH) High School rape case rocked the country, and when Notre Dame’s presence in the national championship brought attention to a potential sexual assault the university may have helped cover up. Vanderbilt did the right thing by dismissing the players. But every time another story like this breaks, we’re forced to confront the unintended consequences of elevating college football on our campuses, as well as the fact that this isn’t just a football problem: across the country, college administrators are mishandling sexual assault cases and making their campuses less safe for young women. The Vandy case is particularly interesting for its potential consequences, though. Vanderbilt is a school without a true athletic department, a rare top-conference team where academics and reputation really do mean more than football. Vandy coach James Franklin has done wonders for the football program, but he also told Yahoo’s Pat Forde last year that if his team ran into trouble the way so many Southeastern Conference schools do, the school would pull the major funding increases it has made to support the football team. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Vandy case is another reminder that our colleges and our football programs need to do much better.
Feel-good stories (and one that hopefully turns out right): Keep an eye on Steven Rhodes, the former Marine-turned-Middle Tennessee State football player who the NCAA declared ineligible under an arcane rule this summer, only to reverse course once his story went national. Rhodes won’t be a big contributor for the Blue Raiders, but the 25-year-old freshman will likely contribute on special teams. Then there’s Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers player who was paralyzed during a game in 2010. Rutgers will make LeGrand’s No. 52 jersey the first the school has ever retired on Sept. 14 when it hosts Eastern Michigan. A wildcard: Louisville running back Michael Dyer, who helped Auburn win the national championship as a freshman in 2010, then was dismissed from the team after failing multiple drug tests. He transferred to Arkansas State, where he was dismissed again for getting pulled over for speeding and police found a gun in his car. Dyer graduated with an associate’s degree from Arkansas Baptist College last year and enrolled at Louisville, where coach Charlie Strong has him on a zero-tolerance policy and forced him to sign a behavior contract. Does he belong in the “feel good” category? Not yet, and plenty have pilloried Strong for giving Dyer a shot. But here’s hoping a kid who’s getting a third chance takes advantage of his talent and Strong’s generosity and makes things right.
National Champion: Alabama is the obvious choice, and the Tide are probably going to win it all. But everyone is picking Alabama, so I’m not going to. Instead, I’ll take Georgia, which is finally going to put it together (note: I reserve to right to later revise “put it together” to mean “lose to Kentucky on the way to finishing 8-4”) for a full season and beat Alabama in the SEC Championship game to avenge its loss there last year. The Dawgs, led by Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray, will lose somewhere along the line, but they’ll recover and beat Ohio State to win UGA’s first title since 1980 and the Southeastern Conference’s eighth in a row.
Heisman Trophy: Picking the Heisman winner at the beginning of the season is a fool’s errand, but I’ll try anyway. I like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or Alabama running back TJ Yeldon. USC wide receiver Marqise Lee might be my favorite player in college football, but the Heisman is tough to win from the wideout position, especially with a new quarterback. Georgia’s Todd Gurley might be as good as Yeldon, but he’ll still be splitting carries with Keith Marshall. The quarterback position is deep, with Manziel, Braxton Miller (Ohio State), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Aaron Murray (Georgia), and Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville) all expected to have great seasons. But here’s something to keep in mind: the last three Heisman winners — Manziel, Robert Griffin III, and Cam Newton — weren’t on anyone’s list at the beginning of the season.
Random thoughts: Lane Kiffin better enjoy this season, because it’ll be his last as USC’s head coach. My alma mater, Kentucky, will win four games in head coach Mark Stoops’ first season. One of them will be against Tennessee. Louisville will be undefeated when it travels to Cincinnati on Dec. 5, but it won’t end up in the national title game. Every prediction I just made will manage to be obviously incorrect by mid-October. Sorry, Georgia fans.