Breaking the huddle, but not the mold

Benjamin Chase of the Plainsman
Posted 9/8/23

In this From the Mound, the writer evaluates the lack of progress in the game of football in pay and hiring practices

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Breaking the huddle, but not the mold


“So look at me now
I’m just makin’ my play
Don’t try to push your luck, just get out of my way”
“Back In Black” - AC/DC

Australian rockers AC/DC released “Back In Black” as the title track from the album released in December 1980.
It was written as a tribute to former lead singer Bon Scott, who passed February 1980.

The song has become one of the band’s most recognizable tunes, though it didn’t have a lot of success on charts, topping out at No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. The song has been sampled by multiple groups and appeared on live albums released by the band, continuing its legacy.

While I enjoyed the song previously, in 1997 as a high school senior, it took on a new meaning for me.

Our football team had spent multiple months doing fundraising in order to get new jerseys.

While the colors of the Wolsey-Wessington co-op were gold and black previously, the jerseys had always been gold with black lettering.

We were able to purchase black jerseys with white numbers and yellow trim - and to add our names to the back of the jersey, something very new to a high school kid who had never had a personalized jersey throughout sports.

The Warbirds that season embraced the AC/DC tune as a consistent pregame tune in the locker room.

It’s doubtful that many knew the lyrics were meant as a tribute tune - heck, the song was released before about 90% of the team was even born, but the words are certainly fitting for football.

We went on to rank in the top-5 in Class 9A through most of the season, outscoring 281 Conference foes by an average of 40 points per game, enjoying it as that song blared loudly in the locker room before each contest.

We’re already four weeks into the high school football season after games played yesterday for small schools and three weeks in for 11AA and 11AAA teams. Last week began the college football season nationwide. This weekend is the first National Football League (NFL) weekend of the season.

Football breeds some of the most loyal and raucous fans in all of sports. College football fans have gone as far as murder in support of their favorite squad - obviously way too far in fandom, but still something that has happened.

Just ask Santa about Philadelphia NFL fans!

Television ratings bear out that football pulls more eyes than any other sport. With a pair of big seriese in baseball and multiple other significant national sporting events over the weekend, the 11 largest television rankings from the last week were college football games.

Even among sports events, the top ranked non-football shows were the NASCAR playoff opener and the U.S. Open tennis field of 16, the only two non-football events of the week in the top 15 most-watched sporting events of the week!

To get perspective, the first Republican debate pulled in 12.8 million viewers, and the top-ranked game of last week drew 9.2 million views.

The debate, however, only held 3.2 million who watched more than 50% of the event…while seven college football games topped that number, despite it being a holiday weekend and college football broadcasts set up to be more regional.

The blessing and curse, as former NFL defensive back Domonique Foxworth relayed recently, is that football reflects our culture strongly.

Players are sent out to damage their bodies, sometimes permanently, and they’re not only expected to do so, they’re berated when they don’t go back out for the next play after a big hit to the head or knee or wherever.

Yet, especially for college and professional levels, the coaches are earning significant salaries and career advancement while players are churned through like people pass through favorite shoes.

Recent developments in Name Image Likeness (NIL) funds that college athletes have been able to earn has balanced the scales, so players are only being mostly used and abused.

However, even the most valuable college athlete, basketball player Bronny James of Southern Cal - the son of LeBron, made an estimated $7 million in his first year at USC. The top football player in earnings in 2022 was Bryce Young of Alabama, with $3.5 million.

Coming into the 2023 season, 15 college football coaches  earned more than $7 million, as Front Office Sports noted that more than 60 college coaches out-earned Young’s $3.5 million earnings in 2022.

Beyond the significant difference in compensation between those who coach and those who actually play the game and bring in the viewers to a game, there’s also a significant difference in the advancement possibilities.

NFL players average just over two years in the league - and that’s with some players like Tom Brady who played more than 20 seasons skewing up that average.

NFL head coaches have an average tenure of roughly four years, and that’s a level achieved typically only after spending a few years as a position coach, coordinator, and/or college coach.

The balance of coaches in the sport’s highest level, the NFL, is incredibly imbalanced compared to the player population. Roughly 65% of the league is Black, with 25-30% of the league considered white (the final percentage is a mix of multiple races).

If that were to translate to all levels of coaching within the NFL, 21 head coaches would be Black, with more than 70 positional coaches and coordinators as well. Instead, the league has three head coaches and fewer than 20 positional coaches and coordinators who are Black. Ten teams do not have a single coaching spot that is held by a person of color, yet roughly 2/3 of each team is non-white, which means most players don’t have someone on the team to whom they can relate when racial aspects of the league come up.

We hear the salaries of top NFL players and are blown away. However, while Pat Mahomes is going to earn $40 million for 2023 when bonuses are included, Andy Lee was the second-longest tenured NFL player last season with 19 years of experience, during which he earned $40 million total with bonuses, and his first three seasons, he earned less than $1 million, so if he would have been out of the league in the average amount of time, he’d have earned less than a million while those who benefited from his play made billions of dollars (2022 NFL revenue = $18.6 billion).

So, when you’re complaining about a job where your boss doesn’t pay you well or understand what you’re going through, but you dump money into NFL gear or tickets or special television packages that include RedZone or NFL Network, you’re supporting bosses who are intentionally structuring a league to treat players as bad or worse than your worst day of misunderstanding on the job.

We can enjoy being back to the game, but akin to the energetic AC/DC tune actually being a tribute to a fallen band member, there are things underneath the surface of the beginning of football season that many will never understand or realize, and there are real lives being affected by that.