College football's unchecked conditioning culture is dangerous for players
The NCAA and schools must protect athletes from unqualified coaches, questionable offseason training
College football has never been more dangerous.
This is not a hot take. It remains a fact, a reminder. Since 2000, at least 21 players have died basically from overexertion -- not from a blow to the head or a hit that left anyone paralyzed.
They died because they were run/exercised to death in the offseason or in practice. Usually without pads or hitting. And not in games.
Overexertion remains the leading cause of football-related death this century. That's why it remains troubling to read that at least three Oregon players were hospitalized recently after what were described as "grueling" offseason workouts.
Players were required to do continuous push-ups and up-downs -- basic military training -- for an hour, according to the the Oregonian.
The mother of one player said he was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis. That's a syndrome in which an exhausted body turns on itself. Muscle tissue breaks down. It leaks into the bloodstream. The kidneys can shut down. There is the risk of death.
To be fair, the Oregonian reported some players said on Twitter the severity of the workouts had been exaggerated. But that the possibility of such abuse is even possible in 2017 boggles the mind.
"The assumption is that there is good sports science in the United States," said Jay Hoffman, past president of the National Strength Coaches Association. "The reality is it's one of the worst in the world."
The NCAA has few guidelines in such situations. We're now going on 14 years since an NCAA working group put in definitive offseason guidelines meant to curb offseason abuses. Players keep being sent to the hospital -- or worse.
It took a lawsuit for the association to start testing for one of the overexertion causes -- sickle cell trait. Until then, it seemed trainers and/or coaches were largely ignorant to the fact players with the genetic trait need to be acclimated to conditioning for a period of days.
Oregon's new strength coach Irele Oderinde came along with coach Willie Taggart from South Florida. Oderinde is listed on Oregon's website has having a bachelor's degree in recreation administration and a master's in sport management.
"He doesn't have a degree in exercise science," Hoffman said. "He doesn't have a minimal qualification to do what he's doing. If any of these kids sue, [Oregon is] screwed."
Oregon did not immediately respond for comment asking if the school required its strength coach to have an exercise science degree.
As the Oregon story broke, it obviously struck a nerve. My Twitter feed exploded Monday with reaction from trainers and medical personnel. Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas went on a Twitter rant against the NCAA.
Oregon released a statement Monday saying it had "implemented modifications ... to prevent further occurrences."
Nevertheless, this is the time of year teams are shaped in the weight room. Strength coaches are considered some of the most important persons on the staff. They can spend time with the players in the offseason when the coaches cannot.
It should be mentioned, Marotti is considered one of the best strength coaches in the business.
"The answer is there, it's staring everyone straight in the face, but no one wants to deal with it," Hoffman said. "There has to be oversight, minimal standards. Raise the bar. Coaches are allowed to choose their [strength coach] irrespective of the qualifications of what their guy has."
The abuses seem to go on and on. Missouri paid a settlement after a player died in 2005 during a July workout. It turned out Mizzou's strength coach at the time didn't have the qualifications listed in the school's own job description.
Central Florida dragged the family of former player Ereck Plancher through a lengthy court battle.
Last year, Cal admitted liability in the death of a former player and paid a $4.75 million settlement.
Rhabdo is not "acquired." It is a medical condition, not a virus. In this setting, college athletes are pushed beyond their bodies' limits by superiors who control their fate in the weight room and/or on the roster.
In 2012, Oklahoma trainer Scott Anderson called college football's conditioning culture the "Junction Boys Syndrome." Bear Bryant's romanticized Texas A&M training techniques from the 1950s have been largely criticized by anyone with any knowledge about modern athletic training.
Anderson quoted a former president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine as saying that conditioning at elite college programs is "antiquated, scientifically unstudied, and can be, obviously, dangerous."
Meanwhile, three Oregon student-athletes who came to play football find themselves in the hospital merely because they were training for it.
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