College football has hit a new low. Last month Devon Gales, a wide receiver on the Southern University Jaguars football team, suffered a severe neck injury in a game against the University of Georgia. As a result of the injury, Mr. Gales lost most movement in his limbs and torso. There is some hope for recovery, but the injury is a compelling reminder of the inherent dangers of playing football.
While the particular play that caused Mr. Gales’s injury did not appear especially violent, the circumstances in which the game was played raise important questions about whether certain classes of athletes are placed at increased risks of injuries.
Mr. Gales was injured in a so-called guarantee game, one of the many ignominies of contemporary college football. The premise is often simple — a powerhouse athletic program pays a vastly overmatched opponent an appearance fee (or revenue guarantee) to travel to its campus and get trounced before the home crowd.
The victor in these games is almost never in doubt, with game officials sometimes resorting to a running clock in order to minimize the embarrassing nature of the display. The powerhouse gets the benefit of an in-season scrimmage; the overmatched and underresourced opponent gets a check. It is a classic quid pro quo, with demoralizing and, in the case of football, dangerous implications.
Southern is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference — one of two Division I conferences made up exclusively of historically black colleges and universities. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is the other. HBCUs have been hit hard by declining state funding and other revenue pressures. For example, Florida A&M University — a member of the MEAC — endured a cumulative loss of almost $194 million in state funds from 2006 to 2013. A SWAC member, Grambling State University, saw its state funding decline 53 percent from 2008 to 2014.
Those cuts are especially debilitating for HBCUs because they tend to have smaller endowments and the socioeconomic backgrounds of their students often render large tuition increases untenable.
As a result, the number of guarantee games played by MEAC and SWAC football teams has increased significantly over the last decade. In the five seasons from 2006 through 2010, teams in those two conferences played a combined 13 games against opponents in the wealthiest conferences. In the five following seasons — 2011 through 2015 — the number of guarantee games increased to 31.
The average score in those games was 55-8, with differentials of more than 55 points in about a third of them.
Guarantee games are a perverse form of exploitation that places players in the role of sacrificial lambs. And when the games involve HBCUs, there is a disgusting historical context. For example, in 2013, a federal judge found that the State of Maryland had engaged in rampant academic-program duplication that fostered the progress of the state’s traditionally white institutions at the expense of its HBCUs — and this is not isolated behavior.
HBCUs have long been disadvantaged to the benefit of majority-white institutions, so guarantee games have become accidental history lessons played out amid the revelry of one of our favorite pastimes.
Beyond the philosophical objections, the injury to Mr. Gales prompted me to wonder about the legal implications of guarantee games, specifically whether the games place players at risks exceeding the assumptions associated with choosing to play football. If so, then colleges, conferences, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association may well be subject to damages for the resulting injuries.
The games are not premised as competitive contests, and that lack of competitiveness creates higher risks, as do the vast disparities in program resources. For example, the five Southeastern Conference universities that faced MEAC and SWAC football teams from 2006 to 2015 collectively generated almost a half-billion dollars in revenue in 2013.
That total is almost three times as much as the combined revenue of 20 programs in the MEAC and SWAC (data for two institutions were unavailable). Resource disparities affect the entire student-athlete experience, from recruitment to facilities to academic support to training and finally to game-day performance.
A crucial piece of information in assessing the prospects of legal liability arising from the games is injury data. Do players on overmatched teams suffer more or more severe injuries in those games? Can longer-term health effects be associated with, say, the number of guarantee games a player endures?
Surely such cases would be difficult to prove. But the underlying questions should be explored, ideally by colleges and the NCAA. In the meantime, these perverse arrangements should be banned. They only continue a history, literally and symbolically, of exploiting black bodies for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful while increasing the potential for legal liability among the colleges least able to afford it.