Football Run Amok!

Its name is rhabdomyolysis and it can cause damage to cells and kidneys and even kidney failure. It’s an ailment that is caused by stress, in this case inordinate stress to muscle tissue…and it’s entirely preventable, though it requires hospitalization for treatment, perhaps for days.

Thirteen University of Iowa football players incurred the ailment recently and had to be hospitalized. One wonders why these athletes were even susceptible to anything having to do with the sport, especially since the football season has been long terminated (even the plethora of bowl games, most of which involve teams of only average to mediocre ability).

It turns out that the players were introduced (or sentenced) to a seven-week period of off-season strenuous “training” that caused the ailment, which involves the release of muscle fibers into the bloodstream, something hard to imagine, the penetration of the walls of veins and arteries with anything other than external force/instruments. The blood must run through the kidneys in order to be cleansed but the kidneys are designed to handle liquids, not necessarily muscle fibers, so the problem is easily seen.

With the season over, one wonders why the players were still involved even though most of them are on full scholarships. At Iowa, as at most other universities, a winning football team is the next thing to having the best army in the world, and coaches and assistant coaches are hugely overpaid to see that football reigns supreme. The coaches (especially head coaches) make millions per year off the backs of the players but are never assured of employment in the fickle world of sports in which a key player having a broken leg can ruin a season.

Indeed, according to a USA Today article (January 2008, with nothing much changed), “football players in the NCAA's Division I Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) said they spent an average of 44.8 hours a week on their sport — playing games, practicing, training and in the training room — compared with a little less than 40 hours on academics.” In other words, they are slaves to their scholarships and are more like university workmen on overtime than students.

At Iowa, the players had just returned from the holidays and were thrust into the program that demanded inordinate stress on their bodies without their having the time to build their bodies back into shape after the layoff. The result for 13 of them was rhabdomyolysis, entirely preventable by a strength-and-conditioning coach who had been on the scene for 12 years and should have known better. The ailment was not unknown in the sports world, another example of it involving seven members of the University of South Carolina swimming team in 2007.

The Iowa players checked-in to the hospital on a Monday, with five, less than half, being released on the following Friday, an indication of the seriousness of the problem. People undergoing serious surgeries do better than that.

Why did this happen? In 2009, Iowa sported a win-loss record of 10-2, with a conference record of 6-2, very good in the tough Big-Ten conference. In 2010, the team sported a 7-2, 4-1 record going into the last three games and could have been headed to the Rose Bowl, but it lost its last three games by a total of 10 points and wound up with records of 7-5 and 4-4…absolutely miserable…and went to a second-tier bowl, which it won. This was tantamount to Napoleon at Waterloo, absolutely unacceptable.

So, despite the fact that bad luck might have been the major player last fall, as indicated by the final three scores, there might have been the determination that no efforts would be spared in whipping the current/2011 team into shape long before spring football practice gets underway, the better to make it to a major bowl next season. Then comes the summer layoff and perhaps another attack of rhabdomyolysis when the two-a-day practice-regimen starts, the devil take the hindmost. One hopes that common sense will be engaged to nullify that possibility. If lawsuits are introduced, there may be some new believers in the coaching ranks.

Players fainting (sometimes permanently injured) or dying account of heat-strokes during the summer practices are not uncommon, and concussions, especially, are now the order of the day in-season. College football is now a big-money item for the schools, their presidents and athletic directors, coaches and the bottom line. Largely accruing to the Title-Nine legislation concerning women’s sports (financial losers), athletic budgets have to be supported by football and men’s basketball. Men’s baseball is a loser, too, as are all other organized sports, both men’s and women’s.

With the possible exception of baseball, universities and colleges are now the minor leagues of the professional sports world in addition to having an obsession with winning at all costs, thus driving up salaries for coaches who are sometimes blessed with more luck than expertise. It shouldn’t be so. The players…just the expendable items…the meat-market!