Concussions, Colin Kaepernick and the 21st Century Football Player

The most fundamental challenge facing major college athletic programs relates to the issue of how to successfully meet their responsibility to provide a well-balanced athletic, academic and social experience for the athlete. But due to two emerging athletic and social trends, the challenges facing athletic departments in providing a well-balanced experience will likely increase. When you are starting at a point where there is no longer any question that the academic and social experience of scholarship football and basketball players at far too many institutions has been woefully inadequate and in some cases, fraudulent, that’s a tall order. If universities are already having a tough time meeting this responsibility, how will they respond to and address trends that will make meeting that responsibility even more difficult? 

Future Trend Lines

The first of these emerging trends is the very strong possibility that due to the increased concern regarding the link between football and brain trauma, it is quite likely that fewer parents will allow their children to play the sport. We are already beginning to see this in declining numbers of youth playing tackle football. It will be interesting to see what demographic groups fuel that decline. Will it be children of families who are better off economically? Children of wealthier families, usually with parents with a college education, have more and varied opportunities to achieve workplace and economic success. Initial indications are that parents of this demographic are, in fact, more inclined to steer their children away from football due to concerns about brain trauma. 

There is also a racial component that bears mentioning. According to an HBO Real Sports/Marist poll released in November, 2016, 43 percent of whites and Latinos are less likely to let their children play football because of the risk of brain trauma, compared with 28 percent among African-Americans.  Further, research tells us that black families, more than white families, view sports as a pathway to future economic success. 

Given these factors, the racial make-up of college football teams, already largely black, may gradually begin to include an even larger percentage of blacks and the poor. 

It is safe to say that the challenges that universities face in successfully integrating not only athletes but all students into the campus community, academically and socially, are significantly more pronounced for minority, low-income and first generation college students. Further, due to tremendous pressures and time demands on athletes, the challenge of successfully integrating them into the campus community and culture is even greater. If the percentage of minority and poor athletes on campus increases, the scope of the challenge of providing these athletes with a well balanced athletic, academic and social experience will also increase. 

The second trend relates to the changing nature of athlete activism. From Jack Johnson to Paul Robeson to Jessie Owens to Jim Brown to Muhammad Ali, black athletes have, often in the face of severe public pressure and great personal sacrifice, leveraged their athletic fame to shine a light on issues of equality, exploitation and athlete rights. There have been college athletes who have been politically and socially aware and active over the years, notable examples include the participation of athletes in campus protests against the Vietnam War and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s (Lew Alcindor at the time) decision to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games. But for the most part, activism by college athletes has been discouraged, ostracized and their efforts stifled by the college athletic community and the public in general.  

When college athletes speak out on social issues, they are often told that playing college sports is a privilege and not a right. In other words, they are being given a tremendous opportunity and they should be quiet and just play ball. First, college athletes are not given a scholarship. They earn that scholarship through years of sweat, toil, hard work and great risk of life-long injury. Second, athletes actually do have rights, the most fundamental being the legitimate opportunity to obtain a well-balanced athletic, academic and social experience and to earn a meaningful degree. That is a fundamental right because that is the “deal” that is struck between the athlete and the institution when the ink dries on the National Letter of Intent. In exchange for that opportunity, the athlete provides athletic performance. 

Part of that well-balanced experience should be the freedom to be fully involved on campus including being able to be involved with the issues of the day in a public manner. That’s something that every college student has the right to do. That is a part of a well-balanced education on campus. College is not simply about classroom or social experiences. It is also includes learning about, contemplating and even acting upon issues they care about.  Social justice and athlete rights are significant issues that impact athletes and therefore they should have the freedom to express themselves and become active in pushing for change in those areas.
The implication is that athletes are not worthy, smart, educated or well informed enough to speak out. It is ironic that often the same people who held up those very same athletes as  “role models” when they were scoring touchdowns are the first to criticize them for speaking out on social issues. Apparently, when athletes use their brains and intelligence to make a public stand, they suddenly become radicals and ungrateful for the “privilege” of playing football. 

Due to attitudes like that, athletes are less likely to engage in controversial social activism because the athletic “system”, including coaches, administrators, sponsors and fans prevents, or if not outright prevents, strongly discourages them from doing so. The driving force behind this dynamic is the fact that in the relationship between the athlete and the athletic department, the athletic department holds all of the power in the form of the scholarship. If an athlete becomes a “distraction” or in the eyes of the coaching staff, isn’t fully focused on and devoted to the team and the sport, he can easily find himself on the bench or off the team and losing the opportunity to play in the NFL. Even if that isn’t the athletes’ ultimate goal, speaking out could jeopardize his ability to even remain in college if his scholarship is revoked. And as the stakes involved in college athletics have risen in the form of increased media attention and skyrocketing revenue, the pressure to remain focused on athletic pursuits has risen as well. 

Not only college athletic departments and the NCAA, but also the sponsors, television networks and bowl organizations that fund college athletics do not want athlete unrest or activism. They want stability so as not to disrupt the financial structure and support of the system. 

Enter Colin Kaepernick

The point of this essay is not that Kaepernick invented athlete activism. He’s simply building on the legacy of athletes like Ali, Abdul-Jabbar and Brown. But rather, it is to suggest that his “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem as a way to draw attention to police brutality and racial justice, feels a bit different.  His action has generated attention in a way that suggests that there may be a shift or an awakening taking place among athletes relating to how to leverage their visibility and standing in our society. There have been a sizable number of athletes throughout the country from the NFL, NBA and WNBA to colleges, high schools and even youth leagues who have knelt, sat, raised a fist or locked arms as a sign of unity with Kaepernick. That’s noteworthy. 

While the long-term impact of Kaepernick’s social activism is yet to be determined, in the short term, it is fair to say that he has provided an example of how athletes, and in particular, black athletes, can use their status and visibility to draw attention to matters of race, social justice and athletes rights. Could it be that moving forward athletes in general and black athletes in particular, may be more comfortable with or more inclined to speak out on such matters?  

Let’s hope this is the case. If college athletes, particularly in the sports of football and basketball are ever to fully earn their right to receive a well balanced athletic, academic and social experience while on campus, they are going to have to fight for it by being courageous, strategic and willing to use the tools at their disposal to draw attention to this issue.

Let’s be honest. Many schools will do whatever necessary, including admitting underprepared athletes and providing “bogus” classes and majors, to achieve athletic glory. When combined with not only the excessive athletic time demands placed on athletes, but also the tremendous amount of control coaches exert over athletes, the result is an academic and social experience that has little in common with that of the general student body. Compounding this reality, is the fact that it is occurring while revenues and coaches salaries continue to skyrocket, those gains made off the backs of largely black athletes in the sports of football and basketball. 

Fortunately, there are some trends and tools emerging that will better enable athletes to do so. First, the public awareness of the disparity between the amount of money everyone in the system, from coaches to administrators to media personnel, are making, while athletes do not even receive the full benefit of a well balanced experience, not to mention, in many cases not even the full cost of attendance for college has been well established. Everything around the entire enterprise reeks of commercialism, money and business, with the athlete being the only one who has to operate in a world of “amateurism” and “education”. More people are paying attention and the pressure on conferences and schools to provide additional benefits to athletes is growing. 

Second, the emergence of social media will also likely play a role in the ability for athletes to communicate their concerns and causes more effectively. It wasn’t that long ago that the only way an athlete could communicate to the public was through the athletic department. Those days are over. An athlete or group of athletes, through the reach of social media, can take their concerns and narrative directly to the public. There is power in that. 

Finally, athletes may finally be figuring out that they may have more power than they imagined. The recent threat of the University of Minnesota’s football team to boycott a bowl game due to a lack of due process afforded several teammates over alleged sexual assault charges offers an interesting case study. Regardless of the merits of this particular case or whether this was the best case for exercising their power, the fact is, when they threatened to boycott a bowl game, people took notice. It was a national story overnight. That’s real power. 

Athlete Activism

In short, we may very well be entering a new phase in the history of athlete activism.

What exactly does having a higher percentage of black athletes on campus and an increased willingness for them to speak out on matters of race, social justice and athlete rights mean for college coaches and administrators of the future? While that future impact may be unclear at this point, colleges and university leaders might be well served to pay more attention to athlete rights and welfare because the college athlete of the future may be less inclined to simply accept the “system” as currently structured. 

Dr. John Gerdy is founder executive director of Music For Everyone. He was an All-American basketball player and also served at the NCAA and as associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. He has authored several books including “Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment”. His website is JohnGerdy.com

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