On Sunday, police in Columbus, Ohio, identified a body found in a dumpster as Ohio State defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge. The 22-year-old died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound just a few days after texting his mother that he was sorry "if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all fucked up."
Though Karageorge had only been on the OSU football team for one season (he had been on the wrestling squad for three years), the possibility that America's favorite and most violent sport contributed to his death is a grim thought, because the lineman is far from the only football player who has endured some vicious blows to the head.
Although the NFL has implemented strict rules governing the reporting and treatment of concussions, the bosses at the NCAA are still apparently figuring it out. The best they have now is a set of concussion guidelines that came out of a class-action suit settled in July. And while the attorney who filed the first suit against the NCAA in 2011 told Fox Sports this would do "nothing less than change college sports forever," critics almost immediately called the new protocol toothless.
The July decree only says that the NCAA's Executive Committee would "recommend" that individual schools pass legislation that implements a concussion management plan. For instance, it doesn't seem like administrators at Ohio State have updated their program's policy since 2012. (Ohio State's football program did not immediately respond to VICE's request for comment.)
Although Ohio State is one of the few schools in America that actually makes money on its football program—funds that can be diverted back to academic things like libraries—increasingly, people are asking if the benefits outweigh the risks. It's plausible that Karageorge suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which basically means he'd been hit in the head a bunch of times, resulting in symptoms like memory loss and debilitating depression. His sister told the New York Times that Karageorge had endured "at least four or five concussions" in his lifetime.
While professional footbal players can at least justify the risk with a million-dollar paycheck, kids like Karageorge are undergoing extreme long-term health risks for little more than glory and an outside shot at an appearance in the NFL. Guys who play college ball also lack the ability to personally pay for testing that would let them know if they were in danger—after all, they're not even allowed to sell autographs.
But much more important than the debate over whether or not to pay college athletes for the risks they take—and the massive amount of money the NCAA generates every season—is the question of what will happen to football. It's entirely possible that people will stop playing the game as more of these stories come out. After all, what well-meaning parent lets his or her kid get involved in an activity that might leave him dead by 22?
And to anyone who thinks the idea is crazy, consider this Grantland essay from 2012. As its authors point out, all it would take is a few more young people committing suicide from CTE before high schools decide the sport isn't worth the risk of lawsuits. Fewer high school players means fewer college players, and the NCAA could topple like so many dominos. Naturally, the NFL would be in trouble in this scenario too.
If it turns out that Karageorge had CTE—and the texts to his mom coupled with his demise suggest that's a strong possibility—it's not gonna mean the end of the NFL, NCAA football, or anything else right away. But it could help move the needle in that direction.
Update: A neuropathologist will reportedly examine Karageorge's body for signs of traumatic brain injury. Most autopsies don't include this procedure, but it's being conducted due to reports about the deceased's history of concussions.
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