National Columnist

College football players risk their brains, too, so it's time to pay them


Like many others long forgotten, Junior Seau began punishing his body playing college football. (Getty Images)  
Like many others long forgotten, Junior Seau began punishing his body playing college football. (Getty Images)  

Pay college football players? Not on my watch. That has been my opinion for years, and not one of those 51-49 kind of opinions -- the ones where I can see both sides, but if I have to pick, I'll pick the side opposed to paying college football players. Nope, not like that at all.

Pay college football players? I've been 100 percent against it. I can prove it, too. Read this story I wrote in September 2010 and tell me if you can detect even a smidgen of wiggle room. Bet you can't.

Pay college football players? When pigs fly.

Or, tragically, when Junior Seau kills himself.

And then, just like that, I change my mind. Because -- just like that -- something occurs to me that had never occurred to me until now, until Seau's suicide kick-started the conversation nationally about the damage football does to a man's body, his brain, his psyche:

It's not just NFL players who are at risk. College football players play football, too.

Danger in football

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As stupid as that last sentence looks, that's how stupid I feel, frankly, for not grasping the stakes until now. Until a seemingly healthy, happy, well-adjusted Junior Seau -- a few years away from being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- points a pistol at his chest and pulls the trigger. Whether football contributed to Seau's ultimate decision, we don't know. And for the sake of this story, it doesn't matter.

Seau's suicide got a lot of us thinking about the havoc football wreaks -- got us thinking even more critically than we already were, I should say -- and now it's simply impossible for me to remain on the side that says college football players shouldn't get paid.

And just so you know, the basis for my earlier assertion -- that college players should not be paid -- still stands. Right or wrong, I don't care that coaches get rich while players get "only" a scholarship. From a fiscal standpoint I'm fine with that tradeoff, because players get a lot more than a scholarship. They get a different college experience than almost everyone else, a better college experience with a direct route to the classes they want, tutors, fame, fans. The life of a college football player? It's a great life. If they're being exploited, please, someone exploit me that way.

That was my position on the fiscal side, and it stands. And it stands for other sports, too. Pay other college athletes -- basketball players, baseball, tennis? When pigs fly.

But on the gridiron side, it dawns on me that the issue of paying players is about something more important than the economics of college football. It's about the long-term health of players, and as we all know, their long-term health is compromised.

Thing is, the physiological impact of football on college players is woefully underreported. We know what happens to NFL players, and it isn't good. They crumble physically, unable to walk without a limp or pour from a gallon jug of milk. They suffer from dementia at rates anywhere from five to 19 times worse than the general population. They commit suicide, and they're starting to do it in a way that preserves their brain for future study, as if to say, "This wasn't my fault."

Football is brutal on the men who play in the NFL. This, we know.

But what does it do to college players? This, we don't know -- and I know why. College football players come in two forms: Those who advance to the NFL and those who don't. Those who advance to the NFL? Their health issues are attributed solely to the NFL, as if none of the damage occurred in college, which is unrealistic.

As for the other category, the ones who don't become pros, we simply don't pay attention to what happens to them -- and you know I'm right. A former college player ceases to exist, for the most part, to you and me. After four years of playing in front of thousands of fans, those guys live the rest of their lives with as much fanfare as the rest of us, which is to say, no fanfare at all. A middle-aged man is diagnosed with dementia or suffers from congestive heart failure or commits suicide. If that man played college football 15 years ago at Akron or Colorado State, does it make a headline?

No. Of course not.

Which means we just don't know what college football does to the young men who play it, but I can guess. So can you. And my guess is, college football hurts these guys -- forever -- more than we realize. Not because we don't care, but because, well ... no, it is because we don't care.

It's time to care.

And it's time to pay these guys. It's one thing for them to sacrifice their free time to make a multimillionaire of their head coach. It's something else for them to sacrifice their brains and bodies for the same cause. And to sacrifice so much for so little? That's ghastly. Pay up, college football administrators. Pay your players. Everyone pays a price for your sport -- some more than others.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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