On Saturday, a defenseless Shane Morris took a vicious hit to the head in Michigan's game against Minnesota. He popped right up and wobbled around the field, waving off concerned teammates like a piss-drunk dude insisting to the cops that he's good and sober. By the doctrines of the NCAA and human empathy, Morris should've been tethered to the sidelines and attended to by professionals. But coach Brady Hoke let Morris back into the game, claiming he never saw the hit or Morris struggling with his motor skills afterwards.
At best, Hoke's defense is negligence, an admission that he was too distracted to pay attention to the game he was ostensibly coaching, but he hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt. He's given a player frostbite before. Hoke knows exactly what he's doing, which is squeezing everything he can out of his players at all costs. Watching Morris suddenly lose the capacity to stand up, much less play quarterback, is scary and awful. But watching Hoke dismiss the whole affair and say Morris stayed in the game because "Shane wanted to be quarterback," is worse. It speaks to the distinctly capitalistic dehumanization that drives college football. An idea echoed by David Brandon, Michigan's director of athletics, in a statement released today at 1 a.m.
The statement is as cowardly as one would expect; it cites "confusion," as the reason why Morris was exposed to life-threatening danger. Perhaps the most galling aspects of Michigan's stance are that the statement refers to what happened as a "unique and complex situation," and one the team's "inadequate," protocols could not handle. In other words, Michigan is admitting that, as of now, its medical staff can't deal with a concussed player in a medically acceptable manner. This admission is both stunning and utter horseshit that serves to obfuscate a greater truth.
Here's the most important fact in all of this: David Brandon and Brady Hoke need Michigan to win to keep their jobs. For the team to win, the best players must play. No one gets credit from recruits or the bosses if Michigan becomes a bastion of compassion and places the health of players over winning football games. There is a clear incentive to being a malicious asshole and leaning on football's self-generated mythology of the all-conquering masculine virtue in sucking it up; even if the "it" kills people.
This is not to absolve anyone involved. Hoke's dangerous malice isn't unique, but that doesn't excuse it. People need to be fired when they endanger a 20 year-old's life—doubly so when said 20-year-old is playing the dangerous game of football. But it's worth examining the macrostructure that encourages people like Hoke and Brandon to make such decisions.
Players have almost no agency in the NCAA. They make bundles of money for their schools, are churned through the system in four years or less, and get negligible compensation for their troubles. The NCAA has a labor force propping it up that they've made infinitely dispensable. Myths about the virtues of amateurism and school pride ensure that the NCAA gets the whole pie. They can't see athletes as humans because they have to treat them like replaceable machine parts for their operation to work. Paying players would require an acknowledgement of their humanity, which the NCAA can't do because its brand of exploitative capitalism falls apart if it sees its own shadow. Coaches play the intermediary between players and an institution that openly commodifies them.
Hoke has made repeated mention of the fact that Morris wanted to stay in the game. Never mind that Morris was signalling his intent with all the clarity of an aircraft controller on quaaludes. Hoke's best defense for his cruel idiocy was to assert that Morris was the author of his own fate and he could do whatever he wanted. This is the double bind that coaches and the NCAA put on college football players: the only agency they have is the right to break themselves for their team. Players can't get paid and are expected to sacrifice themselves at a moment's notice for people who see them as cheap investments.
While Hoke surely walks away from this with a lifetime asshole brand, he's just one part of an enormous system. His particular role in the dehumanization of college athletes isn't widespread so much as acute. He embodies the nasty praxis of amateurism and an industry built on boldfaced exploitation. But the fight for human rights like workplace security won't stop at Michigan. The NCAA churns out Brady Hokes just as it destroys kids like Shane Morris. Meaningful change will involve an overhaul at that office and beyond.