Every year, harsh training kills two NCAA students. Some students die of heat stroke. Half have discoverable heart or genetic conditions that set them up to die.
Every year, dozens of students are hospitalized with muscles that dissolve during stressful training. The chemicals from dead muscles can cause kidneys to fail.
Every year, a third of college football players have a concussion; a fifth have more than one. In other words, a college football player is 60 times more likely to have two or more concussions in a year than he is of getting drafted for a pro team where the average career is three to five years.
The name for dementia caused by repetitive concussions is "chronic traumatic encephalopathy." Doctors identified it in 1928. In 2009, a 42-year-old former Illinois wide receiver, Mike Borich, died of that dementia. The NCAA ignored student concussions until the media put such cases on the front page. The NFL bravely warned the NCAA to address this problem in January 2012.
The contradiction between a college's athletics pounding a brain while its classrooms are educating it for a career seems too obvious to mention.
Colleges sell dreams and ignore nightmares. Few student athletes are given comprehensive insurance for varsity athletic injuries. Many have inadequate policies. And college athletics nearly ignores the need for lifelong disability policies to cover paralysis or concussive dementia.
The NCAA tacitly allows teams to balance students' health with the teams' interest rather than insisting that programs be designed to ensure that students' health always comes first. Its policies with regard to preathletic assessments or helmet sensors to monitor concussive force are nonexistent or lax. By not requiring colleges to provide comprehensive and long-lasting insurance, it has pushed the cost of students' injuries and disabilities onto students, their parents and society at large.
Colleges can make structural reforms while they wait for the NCAA to get its act together.
Boards of regents should insist that sports physicians be employed by student health services -- not by athletic departments. Sports-medicine physicians are skilled, caring professionals, but they should not have the clinical conflict of interest that comes from being employed by athletic departments. Recent scandals show how the prestige and revenues of athletic programs can compromise the operations of athletic-department professionals.
Regents should insist that athletics departments be publicly accountable for injuries. They should require departments to publish statistical data of sports-related hospitalizations, fractures and surgeries, as well as all data from helmet impact monitors for practice sessions and games. Annual or biennial reports could be released without compromising individual students' privacy.
Regents should ensure that student athletes have health and disability insurance that is sufficient to cover the treatment and consequences of sports-related injuries. The cost of such insurance will motivate athletic departments to protect students' health.
It is past time for boards of regents to step up to the plate.
Dr. Steven Miles lives in Minneapolis.