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Academe's money tree

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON

Like baby birds with yawning beaks, college football fans clamor to be fed. So fasten the chin strap on your helmet — ignore the warning label (“No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death.”) and enjoy the seasonal festival of physical carnage, institutional derangement and moral seaminess.

LSU offensive tackle Josh Williford, 22, will, however, leave his helmet off, having just retired rather than risk another concussion. A third concussion triples the risk of clinical depression for those with no prior symptoms, and autopsies performed on 334 deceased NFL players “found that they were three times more likely than the general population to suffer from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).”

These figures are from a Wall Street Journal essay defending football from critics. These critics must admit that college football is at least adding to our knowledge of brains by fueling studies of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the cumulative effect of repeated small “subconcussive” blows to the head.

Football's defenders note that some other recreational activities injure more participants. But only in football is long-term injury the result not of accidents but of the game played within the rules. Rules could be changed by, for example, eliminating kickoffs with their high-velocity collisions and barring the three-point stance whereby linemen begin each play with their heads down and helmet-to-helmet collisions are likely. But such changes could be made only over the dead bodies of fans who relish mayhem from safe distances.

Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist who loves football, has a new book (“The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America”) that is hardly a love letter. “At many big-college sports programs,” he writes, “the athletic department is structured as an independent organization that leases campus space and school logos, then operates a tax-exempt business over which the school's president and board of trustees have little control.”

Easterbrook notes that when Auburn won the 2010 national championship, its net football income was $37 million, just a bit less than the $43 million of that season's NFL champion. Auburn's head coach, Gene Chizik, was paid $3.5 million that year, a sum justified because, said Auburn's $600,000 athletic director, “Coach Chizik is a great mentor to our student-athletes.”

Two years later, Chizik's mentoring greatness counted for less than his 3-9 record. He was fired, the blow cushioned by a $7.5 million buyout. In 2012, the University of Tennessee fired its losing coach with a $5 million severance. In 2011, Michigan paid $1 million to San Diego State University so Michigan could hire SDSU's coach, paying him $3.3 million (plus up to $500,000 in bonuses for victories) to replace the fired coach to whom Michigan had paid a $2.5 million severance. In 2011, Texas Tech gave its head coach a $500,000 raise while freezing faculty salaries.

Meanwhile, to preserve college football's purity, the NCAA has stern rules about dealing with recruits: “An institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels to a student-athlete at any time.” Cookies? See the relevant regulation. In 2008, Easterbrook notes, the Raleigh News & Observer “reported that University of North Carolina football and men's basketball players were enrolled in email Swahili ‘courses' that had no instructors and never met and always led to A's.” There was, however, no evidence of cookie corruption.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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