Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Foul Shots: No offseason

Motivational sports videos, complete with hip-hop soundtracks and gritty camera shots of athletes doing squats with a spotter behind them will tell you this message: There is no offseason. Hard work doesn’t rest. Coaches commonly use this mantra to get their players to work out in the so-called “offseason,” the period in which the regular season and playoffs are over.

But these videos are wrong. There is an offseason, especially at the college (and high school, for that matter) level. There has to be one. The offseason is a time to give the body a brief reprieve from the rigors of athletic competition at an elite level. I’m not saying that NCAA athletes should just vegetate for four months and not work out at all, that’s stupid. But the body needs time to recover and recuperate.

The biggest indication of this “no offseason” philosophy has to be the existence of spring games in college football.

These intrasquad games, which count for absolutely nothing in regular-season and Bowl Championship Series standings (just kidding, that system is gone now), are nonetheless televised and scrutinized by fans, players and college football pundits alike. They’re also a proving ground for young players who are hoping to make an impact in their first couple years on the team.

It cannot be overstated how much stress and strain playing competitive football puts on the human body. There’s a reason that Boston University researchers have been studying brains of deceased football players to investigate the traumatic impact of the game on the human brain. In recent years, numerous former NFL players, like Junior Seau, have committed suicide after suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that is caused by trauma to the head.

Players need a rest from football after playing an intense four- to five- month season. You could say that the months of January-March or April, when spring games occur, are the “offseason.”  But players participate in so-called “voluntary” workouts and push their bodies to the limit, instead of taking the time off that their bodies absolutely need.

Injuries can happen if the body isn’t given time to rest. I couldn’t find a specific instance of someone tearing an ACL or suffering a concussion during a spring game, but it definitely has happened. I myself tore ligaments and tendons in my right elbow in high school because of the lack of an offseason from baseball. And that happened while playing a sport where there aren’t gigantic, angry guys wearing body armor trying to physically destroy each other. Football is dangerous enough to play for a single season, let alone to play it essentially year-round.

And that’s not to mention the academic aspect of the “no-offseason” mentality. According to Business Insider, only about 1.7 percent of NCAA student athletes will make the NFL after leaving college. That leaves 98.3 percent of students who will, as the commercial says, go pro in something other than sports. The life of a college athlete at a Division I school is hectic, especially for football players who must attend not only practices but also meetings and countless workout sessions. This puts a tremendous strain on their academic lives, which for 98.3 percent of them are far more important than their amateur, unpaid (in theory) football careers.

After leaving college, the overwhelming majority of big-time college athletes need to find a profession in which they can work to support themselves. If they don’t learn what they need to in college, they’re just not set up for the rest of their lives. No big deal, right?

If the vast majority of NCAA football players will never sniff the NFL, why have them prepare as if they will? Look, I get it: anything is possible. If Jeremy Lin can make it from an undrafted Harvard University graduate to being the toast of New York City and Madison Square Garden, anyone can make the pros if they “work hard enough.” But this hard work shouldn’t just be on the field; it should be in the classroom, too.

College athletes are students first, and athletes second. This applies to every single college athlete, except for the super-talented Jabari Parkers and Jadeveon Clowneys of the world. They don’t need to study as much, because they’re going to be multi-millionaires in professional sports. But everyone else is disadvantaged physically and academically by the lack of an offseason.

I see absolutely no benefit in college athletes playing their sport year-round. The idea of full-year competition removes the emphasis from the “student” part of “student-athlete” and places it on the latter word.

That isn’t what college sports, which hold on to their amateur status like a drowning man with a piece of driftwood, are supposed to be about. The offseason is necessary.

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