Cook: Into the Bama breach

Cook: Into the Bama breach

October 6th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

I say this with love.

Love for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Love for its football team. Love for the man-vs.-man struggle that sports can bring.

But what in the name of Goliath is UTC doing playing Alabama in football?

"We picked a good one," Coach Russ Huesman said.

On Nov. 23, the Mocs travel to play the University of Alabama, which won the national championship last season. And the season before. And two seasons before that. And is odds-on likely to win this time, too. They are to football what Oprah is to talking: simply the best.

I'd rather play dead than play Alabama. The Mocs? They can't wait.

"If you ask this whole football team if we can play Alabama or a Division III school, they're all going to pick Alabama," Huesman said.

It is bright lights, big city football. Playing the Tide vaults the UTC name and logo into huge atmospheres (nice to see you again, ESPN), which then helps with recruiting. Fans love it. Players love it. Best of all?

"It helps our budget," Huesman said.

The Mocs get $450,000 for the game, a not-small piece of next year's projected $12 million athletic budget. At first glance, it seems like athletic sacrifice: young men being sent to battle the Bama gods in order to fund UTC sports. Like soldiers, into the breach they go, defeat certain, yet valiantly risking knee and limb for the powers that be.

UTC, like many other schools, has played big-money games for years. (This will be the 11th time the Mocs have played the Tide). With Nebraska in 2011, South Florida in 2012, Alabama this year and Tennessee next, UTC will bring in nearly $2 million from four football games.

Does playing Alabama put the Mocs at greater risk for injury? Common sense says yes, yet consider that the Tide is disciplined and fundamentally tight, less likely to recklessly tackle. Maybe more threatening are the loosely coached D-III teams with slack fundamentals.

"I don't think there is any greater risk in these games," Huesman said.

Greater ... risk.

Perhaps instead of asking

why UTC is playing Alabama, let's ask a bigger question: How much longer will anyone continue to play football?

Few sports are under more scrutiny (corruption, disreputable NCAA) than football, and one issue could cripple the game forever.

Head trauma.

Governing bodies like the NCAA and NFL have been and are being sued by former players because of head injuries (the most recent lawsuit came last week). Ex-pros are committing suicide, and many blame depression caused by brain trauma. The New York Times reports about 25,000 football players -- as young as 8, as old as 19 -- are taken to emergency rooms each year because of concussions. Last month, a 16-year-old in New York died after a helmet-to-helmet hit. More than ever, parents are asking: Should I allow my child to play football?

"Football players as young as 7 sustain hits to the head comparable in magnitude to those absorbed by high school and adult players," The New York Times reported.

If football was a just-invented sport, would we allow it? Have we become glassy-eyed to its violence, that is both constant and encouraged? Is it simply shielded by nostalgia, so American this sport, so ingrained, that we have forgotten how to be critical?

"If the sport of football ever dies, it will die from the outside in," writes Jonah Lehrer on "The only question now is whether the death has already begun."

Lehrer cites multiple studies: one describing the neurological red flags -- dizziness, headaches, trouble sleeping -- that flare in the teenage brain after two or more concussions.

Players with multiple concussions are seven times more likely to suffer major memory loss.

Players who've suffered two or more brain injuries had decidedly lower GPAs than their nontraumatized classmates.

"It's not uncommon for a player to sustain hits equivalent to the impact of a 25 mph car crash," Lehrer writes.

The first concussion is damaging, but subsequent ones -- as the brain is slowly trying to rebuild itself -- can be devastating.

"The end result is a massive loss of neurons. Nobody knows why this loss happens. But the loss is permanent," Lehrer writes.

Economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier (also on Grantland) predicted that an increase in lawsuits will lead to more and more insurance companies that stop insuring schools and colleges.

Parents redirect their kids into other sports, and football begins to die, or at least becomes what Malcolm Gladwell in "United States of Football" called a "ghettoized" sport: played in poor communities but absent from privileged ones that can afford other, less-risky athletic opportunities.

Tuesday night, the Frontline documentary "League of Denial" premiers on PBS, focusing on investigations into NFL officials, brain trauma and cover-up. It airs at 9 p.m. on WTCI and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

So many of us love this sport. We also love the players playing it.

But sometimes, it's hard to do both.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.