For many, football is a pastime or spectator sport. For a lot of us players, football was our whole lives ― and the game continues to impact us in the most unfortunate of ways.
I felt exhilarated when the University of Oklahoma recruited me in 2006; I became part of the Sooner family. My teammates and I forged an unshakeable bond, through the good times and the bad.
Unfortunately, those bad times on the field have stuck with me. And I, along with hundreds of other former college football players, seek compensation for the health issues we now face.
I played offensive lineman at Oklahoma. Offensive linemen have a higher collision rate and experience more hits to the head than players at virtually any other position. Concussions were a big risk for us (though we didn’t know that at the time). I participated in thousands of plays between 2006 and 2011, and it’s unknown just how many concussions and sub-concussions I sustained during those years.
A few hits stand out, though ― like the concussion I got during practice that caused me to black out. All that our coaches told us was to sit out practice for a couple of days. Then they made us go back in and play.
I was once an easygoing, sociable and fun-loving guy. When I look in the mirror today, I wonder where that man went.
We also got our “bells rung,” taking a big hit that left us dazed or with our ears ringing, more times than we could count. We didn’t blackout from those, but we felt the pain, and many of us wondered if we should leave the game or practice after that kind of hit. But there was tremendous pressure to “tough it out,” and no one told us how dangerous those hits could be at the time. No one at the NCAA cared to make sure we were actually getting the full story about the risks of concussions and sub-concussions, and the NCAA didn’t bother to make sure we were being cared for, or looked at, or held from the games when we needed to be.
There was an unwritten rule when we played Big 12 Conference football (and it probably still holds true today): Don’t talk about how you feel after a big hit. If you stay in the game, you’re tough; if you leave, you’re letting down your team. And on top of the fear of letting down our teammates, our school and our fans, we also feared losing our spot on the team ― and our scholarship.
No one ever told us the hits we took came with risks ― not the coaches, not the team physicians and certainly not the NCAA. When we watched film from our games, we also watched the serious hits we took on the field. It surprised me to see we were able to get up at all after some of them.
The coaches and team physicians knew how we felt after those big hits, because they asked us in the locker room how we were doing (and if we could practice). They’d pressure us to play, because they were relying on us. Ultimately, we stayed quiet and did what they asked.
NCAA officials were in a position to have our backs and watch out for us. Instead, they stayed quiet, too. And many of us are now living with the consequences.
Every day is a struggle for me. The head hits I sustained playing football have led to constant headaches, short-term memory problems and anger issues. Both my professional and personal lives have been rocky. I find myself in a dark place ― a place where I feel alone and forgotten by the people around me. For reasons I cannot understand myself, I have cut ties with old friends and have stopped doing the activities that once made me happy. I struggle in my family life. I was once an easygoing, sociable and fun-loving guy. When I look in the mirror today, I wonder where that man went.
I try not to complain, because I don’t want to bring down the people around me. I bottle up a lot of my feelings and try to put on a positive face, because I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. But as I get older, and as the symptoms really start to show, I grow more terrified by the day that I’ll be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s ― and become unable to properly support my wife and son.
It’s not just me, though. Some of my former teammates are having the same issues. They’re just not ready to face what’s happening.
Despite decades of research and studies showing brain injuries in football can lead to long-term health effects, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the NCAA has failed to do anything to truly address the issue. Even as researchers and the public learn more about the dangers of concussions and other repetitive hits to the head, the NCAA continues to turn a blind eye. It sees student athletes as having just two purposes: playing football and making it money.
The NCAA needs to do what’s right. Hundreds of former college football players like myself have filed individual lawsuits against the NCAA to hold it accountable for failing to educate and protect us from the long-term risks associated with blows to the head. These lawsuits have been consolidated before a single judge in federal court.
NCAA officials were in a position to have our backs and watch out for the players. Instead, they stayed quiet, too. And many of us are now living with the consequences.
Not surprisingly, the NCAA is attempting to have big parts of our cases dismissed, in effect washing its hands of the serious health consequences many of us now deal with due to the organization’s refusal to act when we were players. As we wait for next steps, we continue to fight and make sure our families ― and thousands of current and future college football players ― are not forgotten.
These other former players and I seek compensation from the NCAA, but we also hope these lawsuits will change the game of college football for the better by forcing the NCAA to make real changes in its treatment of student athletes. College football players are just kids, and kids need to be looked after. No kid should get hurt to the point his life is changed for the worse before he even really gets started living.
We had to learn about football’s risks the hard way, years after we were done playing. And knowing what I do now, I will never let my son play the game. Something has to change in the way we protect players from football’s health risks ― especially at the college level.
Cory Brandon was an offensive lineman at the University of Oklahoma from 2006 to 2011. He is a Texas native who lives in Arlington, Texas, with his wife and son.