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College Football Isn’t As Safe As It Could Be

Three Oregon players were sent to the hospital after intense workouts. It’s just the latest example of a system that forces athletes to be pushed too far.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Three Oregon football players went to the hospital this week after intense offseason workouts. One was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder that can cause a person’s kidneys to shut down. Last year, Oregon went 4–8 and players anonymously complained that some of their teammates were “cutting corners” in the weight room, finishing summer workouts while “barely sweating.” New head coach Willie Taggart brought in a new strength-and-conditioning coach, Irele Oderinde, who instituted a more rigorous program, reportedly featuring up to an hour of continuous push-ups, squats, and sit-ups. Players complained of discolored urine, a symptom of rhabdomyolysis, although only one of the players has been confirmed as having been diagnosed with the condition. Oderinde was not fired, but has been suspended. Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington II tweeted that it was unfair that Oderinde was suspended because players were “out of shape.”

It’s not the first time we’ve heard the word “rhabdomyolysis” in relation to college football. In January 2011, 13 Iowa players were hospitalized with the condition after workouts. A report later revealed why it happened: Iowa asked its players to complete the most rigorous regimen it had ever designed on their first day back from a three-week break. While the workout hadn’t caused rhabdomyolysis after shorter breaks, the condition is often caused by a sharp uptick in strenuous activity. Unlike Oderinde, Iowa strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Doyle was not suspended. In fact, three months later, he was named Iowa’s “assistant of the year,” an award head coach Kirk Ferentz had never given out before and has not given out since. At $625,000 per year, Doyle is also America’s highest-paid strength coach, making more than about a fifth of FBS head coaches.

The logic for paying Doyle highly is easy to follow: There aren’t a ton of elite recruits born in Iowa, and it’s difficult to convince players from other states to move to Iowa. In the past five recruiting classes, Iowa never finished in the top 40 of 247’s composite recruiting rankings. And yet the team has been successful, finishing the 2015 season 12–2 and earning a Rose Bowl trip.

While few fans can name their team’s strength coach, he’s perhaps the most important person on a school’s coaching roster besides the head coach. An NFL strength coach doesn’t matter as much: Everybody on his team is already a grown man. A college strength coach has to turn high schoolers into grown men as quickly as possible. If you’ve got 19-year-olds who are as strong as another program’s 21-year-olds, you’re gonna win some games.

In turn, strength coaches often become team mascots. Coaches love them for turning their boys into men. Players love them for getting their bodies to do things they didn’t realize their bodies could do. And they are, with few exceptions, the most intense dudes around — the type of guys who might light a stick on fire and then have somebody hit them on the back with it.

They’re muscle-bound motivators who inspire by yelling louder than humans are supposed to be able to yell.

The wildman in that video is Alabama’s Scott Cochran, whose screaming capabilities are so incredible that Bama puts him on the JumboTron to hype up the crowd in the fourth quarter. He likes rubbing Icy Hot on his body, especially his armpits, just for fun. If you’ve ever wondered why Alabama often seems to be on a different physical level from its opponents, Cochran is a big reason. He’s also paid better than many head coaches, earning $525,000 per year.

NCAA rules prevent most coaches from having legitimate practices in the offseason. The exception is the strength-and-conditioning staff, which can hold up to eight hours of required conditioning activities per week. Games on fall Saturdays are won on weekdays in the winter, spring, and summer, and on many of those days, the players are entirely at the whim of the strength coach.

These offseason workouts can be dangerous, and not just because of rhabdomyolysis. Last March, Buffalo defensive end Solomon Jackson died after “a medical emergency” at practice. In 2014, Cal defensive lineman Ted Agu died after collapsing during a new drill in which players had to sprint up and down a hill with a heavy rope; the school admitted liability and paid his family nearly $5 million. In 2008, UCF’s Ereck Plancher died following a May conditioning drill overseen by head coach George O’Leary, who reportedly denied players water during the drill. In 2004, Bowling Green freshman Aaron Richardson died on his first day of practice after running sprints across the practice field; the team finished their practice as scheduled and found out about his death as it left the field. In 2001, Northwestern safety Rashidi Wheeler died after an August conditioning drill; the school’s doctor shredded and burned the records from a physical he had given Wheeler before his death. In 2001, Florida State linebacker Devaughn Darling died during an offseason conditioning workout; at a memorial service, coach Bobby Bowden apologized and then said, “I didn’t recognize that he’ll never complain and he’ll never quit.”

Those deaths — and others that we didn’t mention, from every level of college football — had many contributing factors: Some players had undiagnosed conditions, like sickle cell trait or enlarged hearts. Others had diagnosed conditions that were ignored. Some died of heat stroke or heart attacks during summer workouts. None had rhabdomyolysis, but at their root, all these deaths had the same cause as the Oregon and Iowa hospitalizations. College football strength and conditioning coaches are rewarded for forcing their players’ bodies to the limit, but they’re only given a limited amount of time and oversight to do so. That can lead to workouts designed to maximize results in a minimum time with minimal supervision, and that’s not a safe calculus.

The NCAA’s rules restricting athlete participation and supervision are hypothetically supposed to benefit the players’ welfare. But they don’t, really. As with almost every rule the NCAA has, these only exist to perpetuate the existence of the NCAA.

The NCAA can only survive if it doesn’t have to pay players, and the NCAA can only get away with not paying players if it can convince courts that the players are actually amateurs. So, by restricting the time players devote to their sport and the supervision they receive, the NCAA can claim players are students first and athletes second. But no athlete has ever died or suffered kidney failure due to overstudying for a test. They can die or get sent to the hospital due to exhausting workouts.

If the NCAA really cared about the well-being of the players, the rules would focus less on how often players practice and who’s watching them when they do it and more on ensuring that the conditions of those practices are less conducive to serious medical emergencies.

The problem is the status quo is pretty good for the people with the power to change it. The NCAA’s business model still works. And since head coaches don’t have to supervise offseason workouts, nobody blames them if something goes wrong. While head coaches often get fired for mistreating players — Illinois’s Tim Beckman, Kansas’s Mark Mangino, and Texas Tech’s Mike Leach come to mind — none of the head coaches in the deaths mentioned above got fired.

We draw the line at bullying players, which we feel is the malicious act of an over-entitled coach. But driving a player’s body past what it can handle is played off as an unfortunate mistake. When that happens, the coach releases a well-meaning statement about how good of a kid and student the player was, and we get a flurry of articles about how the team banded together in the wake of tragedy.

And strength coaches have more power and money than ever. When a player gets hospitalized or dies, a coach may vow to rethink his program, but the system will always incentivize them to push players as far as they can be pushed.