On College Football Athletes as “Kids”

“There’s just so many outside influences…As much as you know, you probably still don’t know how much is coming at these kids from all different directions with everybody. Human nature is what it is. We’re foolish to think that doesn’t have an effect on our team and our mindset.” – Chris Peterson (University of Washington) on the pressures of winning, 10/17/2016

“It is one though that I think this is when you find out a lot about yourself, your team and your kids. It won’t be done just because I come to work and say we are fixing to bow up and get it done. It is going to take a collaborative effort from a lot of people and a lot of kids, and a lot of young kids that this is a bit foreign to when expectations aren’t quite met early on.” Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) on the upcoming LSU game, 10/17/2016

“We’ve gotten to a point in this industry, that, we’ve lost the focus,” Franklin said. “I don’t know the specifics and the details [of Miles’ firing]. College athletics, and football specifically, it is about the winning, and I get that. That’s an important part. But, it’s also about educating ourkids, and preparing them for success.” – James Franklin (Penn State) on Les Miles’ firing, 9/29/2016

In each of these quotes, an NCAA head football coach refers to college football players – who are all adult men – as kids. The word “kid” can of course mean either child or “young person,” but when used to describe an adult, it demeans and creates a cultural hierarchy whether intended or not. In the world of football, coaches, and players, many may argue this language is normal and can be expected; players will refer to former coaches as “Coach” for years after their playing days end. However, coaches are paid millions while college players are not, creating an economic rift that no other sport approaches. In using the language of “kid,” coaches create a discourse in which college football players are no longer responsible for their actions. If a player asserts themselves politically, then it’s easy to portray them as misguided and immature; if a player acts out, then the relationship more resembles a disciplinarian father reprimanding a son privately; and if a player commits a crime – such as sexual assault – then this language of “kid” absolves the player of guilt.

We are in a time when the paternalism of college football is being challenged. As players fight for economic rights and express themselves politically, coaching language needs to be reconsidered.

“Kid” suggests that players are less-than adult and/or immature, thus rendering any political action ultimately meaningless. The language also demeans players, reminding them they exist within an unbalanced hierarchy where their bosses – the coaching staff – are the only adults. This is problematic given ongoing debates, such the issue of paying college athletes and ongoing national anthem protests. Football players at Northwestern recently moved on a plan to unionize. In February 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled these players qualified as employees and could unionize (note NCAA president Mark Emmert calling the players’ movement “grossly inappropriate”).  After significant NCAA and Big Ten lobbying, the Board to overturn its ruling in August 2015 on appeal from Northwestern University. In criticizing the players’ actions, Lamar Alexander (Senator, TN-R) stated “This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” Kain Coulter responded “How can you say that players finally having a voice is going to ruin the game? You know, to me, that’s just an absurd statement … It’s not like we’re little kids anymore. We’re young men who give a lot … and we should have a voice in all this.”

kids

Typical message board comment bemoaning Northwestern unionization

“Kid” also implies that players are not responsible for their actions, which is especially concerning in the case of James Franklin. When head coach at Vanderbilt in 2013, four football players raped a female student, and each of these men have been convicted of related crimes and sentenced (with Brandon Vandenburg, the ringleader, convicted of rape and still awaiting sentencing). A critical point of the trials came when Franklin absolved himself of all wrongdoing, claiming he was on vacation and never saw the cell phone video of the crime and effectively removing himself from responsibility. While the trial was ongoing, Penn State, still dealing with the legacy of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes and Joe Paterno’s cover-up, hired Franklin as head coach. One of Franklin’s first moments of discipline – less than one month after his rape trial testimony – came when a few Penn State football players egged a dorm building (obviously a far less-serious offense). Police issue criminal mischief citations to four Penn State players and three of the four played football the following Sunday. Said James Franklin of the egg-throwers, “They’re kids and they make mistakes.” This phrase shouldn’t cause alarm on its own, but it does – once again – negate responsibility for player actions. Franklin’s consistent deflection of adult responsibility through the word “kids” is troubling considering he is a coach who recently testified at a rape trial and currently oversees a program recovering from a multi-decade cover-up of child rape.

Coaches often deploy the word “kids” in a casual, informal manner that draws a distinct line between “us” and “them.” In other words, this is the “Kids These Days” narrative. Houston defensive coordinator Craig Naivar: “These kids get a hold of everything, social media, so there’s no hiding from it”; Kansas State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel: “To me, one of the hardest things to do is coach coaches because you spend half the time coaching the coach to go coach the kids”; and Memphis wide receivers coach David Johnson: “Kids in Louisiana, they just love football. They don’t know anything else.” There are dozens of others, but the trend is clear: the football players are kids, not terribly smart, and fundamentally different from the coaching staff. Coaching requires discipline, certainly, but this modern form of collegiate football takes discipline and coaching hierarchy a bit too far, especially given the lack of player compensation. As Penn coach Ray Priore said this week: “When the kids come in, I say to them, ‘I have one daughter but I have 110 sons.’ You want to treat these kids as if they’re your own.” All of these quotes reek of the culture of paternalism that permeates college football programs.

Part of the explanation for this language comes from the use of “kid” in describing college football recruits. Find any article on recruiting and the prospective players are described as “kids,” which is much more appropriate. Early recruiting plagues the college football landscape as major programs recruit high school players as young as fifteen. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer decries the process:

I keep hearing about this early signing period, early access, and let’s move everything up and it’s, I still can’t believe we’re having this conversation. Now they want to move junior, like have official visits in their junior year. There’s some kids that don’t even have ACT scores. Their bodies are gaining 18 pounds. Why not move it back to their sophomore year? It’s bizarre.

Coach Meyer still engages in the early signing process, of course. The use of this language suggests that college football coaches never transition from thinking of players as kids to adults. Coaches meet players, other than walk-ons, when the players are in high school. In recruiting, the players are all referred to as kids because that’s what they are. But that changes once the player reaches college. Players are now over eighteen, legally adults, and presented with a huge media stage. They are adults, and coaching language should adjust to that.

For those skeptical of the power of a single word, a brief example from rugby provides context. There is an ongoing debate in English rugby surrounding the meaning of the most basic aspect of the game – the tackle, defined by the laws of the game as bringing the ball carrier to ground (“wrapping up” in football language). A rugby tackle is, by its definition, not a violent act, but rugby, like American Football, is currently unsettled because of new knowledge of long-term concussion effects. While an unstanding of concussions grows, so too does the use of the word “hit.” Rugby writers, sportscasters, fans, and the players themselves deploy this word nearly as often as those connected to American football. This is a problem to many because the word “hit” implies more violence than “tackle.” Further, “hit” is much more commonly used in American Football and many worry the game will spiral into praising “hits,” needless violence, and emulating the NFL. There are also concerns that faster-paced Rugby Sevens matches could result in significantly more injuries – such as the brutal hit by American Kathryn Johnson at the Olympics – potentially derailing the sports’ recent surge in popularity. Rugby journalists (primarily on TalkSport Radio) are in the formative moments of a campaign to purge the word “hit” from their lexicon, former players call for a reduction of violent hits, and doctors recommend junior leagues to be non-contact.

The “kid” narrative serves multiple functions for a coach. “Kid” places the players at a lower cultural status. “Kid” can deflect responsibility from their players as needed. Sometimes this deflection is reprehensible (such as with covering up crimes), but sometimes it is actually helpful (such as when engaging an angry fan base after a tough loss). “Kid” also reinforces that college football is a game that is supposed to be played for fun, conveniently ignoring that it is now a multi-billion dollar industry built on the backs of unpaid players. Increasingly, I find it nigh impossible to enjoy college football. Games creep along, head injuries are not taken seriously, and college athletes are increasingly exploited as coach salaries creep ever higher. Even some of the best media outlets lazily succumb to the “kid” narrative on occasion. Working in academia and living in the South, I encounter disdain for college “kids” as part of the daily experience. Referring to college athletes as “kids” is harmful. Let’s get rid of this word (and while we’re at it, let’s get rid of “student-athlete”). Pay these adults who play college football…and pay all other college athletes, men and women alike.


Josh Howard is Assistant Professor of Public History at Lamar University. He can be reached through his personal website at jhowardhistory.com or via email (jhowardhistory at gmail dot com).

2 thoughts on “On College Football Athletes as “Kids”

  1. Good stuff, Josh. I’ve noticed the “kids” delineation to reinforce or construct power dynamics across a variety of settings (including in the classroom). I definitely fell into that trap a bit when I first got into coaching. I became a graduate assistant the year after I graduated, and I coached many of my former teammates. It was a really weird situation and my head coach encouraged me to distance myself from teammates because of my new position. It was tough and I know I didn’t always handle in the best ways (and don’t know if I agree with the head coach’s advice). One thing I did gain from that was an awareness that the power dynamic is often artificial and constructed (which can be damaging). The best coaches and teachers I had didn’t require formalities, and spoke/acted in ways where “authority” wasn’t top down. To be sure, I’ve always considered cross country teams (at least the ones I was associated with) to be fairly anti-establishment. But what I think you are getting at, is the tone that coaches and administrators set in how they talk about athletes often does not reflect true team cultures (or at least I hope not), and instead reflects an expected old-school power dynamic that is often authoritatively draconian and paternalistic, and is thus mimicked by fans to castigate, judge, dehumanize, and look down upon athletes. The irony, of course, is that many of these “kids” who are simultaneously viewed as “dumb jocks” are in fact better educated and more thoughtful than the fans. Is this just a part of coaching culture? I hope not, and don’t think it necessarily is. I do see it as being a big part of fan and media culture, and perhaps coaches lean into it because its expected. But you’re right, I too wish we could see athletes as educated adults with thoughts, needs, etc.

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  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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