When Oregon State defender Al Afalava "put a hit" Saturday night on Washington quarterback Jake Locker, it looked like an already-terrible Husky football season was about to end early.
As a Husky fan since the Junior Coffey era, I felt sorry for myself until I realized the kid on the field lying very, very still could be paralyzed for life.
Such is the consequence of the violence of football.
Locker was strapped to a gurney and taken away by ambulance, only to return to the sidelines, walking but wearing a brace on his neck. The injury was called a "stinger" and a trapezius muscle strain.
It all made me think of another Husky, Curtis Williams, who did not return after his own helmet-to-helmet injury during a 2000 game. He was paralyzed so completely he needed a ventilator and constant nursing care. He died two years later. (It was almost spooky that the player photographed consoling Locker, Corey Williams, had "C. Williams" on his jersey.)
Football provides athletes such as Locker and Williams scholarships to cover their schooling, helmets that provide some measure of safety, and rules that say intentional helmet-to-helmet hits are unsafe and should be avoided, except when they can't be avoided, when men of bulk, frenzy, and strength run at each other full bore.
If athletes do get injured, they receive help from the NCAA's catastrophic injury insurance, up to $20 million in lifetime benefits, according to an article in Columns magazine. For Williams, the benefits fell short of what he needed for home care, though the policy was later improved.
Athletes know the risks they take, of course. And for some fans, watching one player deck another is part of the fun. You can watch all the hits on SportsCenter.
But Locker's injury, however lasting, is a reminder of a truth about big time college sports. The players take those risks for fun and the slim hope of a pro contract, while the coaches, universities, and TV networks make the big money. Locker's coach, Ty Willingham, makes more than $1.5 million, twice what UW President Mark Emmert makes.
In Sunday's New York Times, Moneyball author Michael Lewis wrote that college football is a business that doesn't pay its employees. They got nothing from the $1.8 billion in revenue generated in 2005 by the 121 Division 1-A football teams.
"Everyone else associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value," he wrote. Many of the employees are black and poor, performing for "the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white."
Lewis says if the NCAA wanted to keep money out of college football, it should give away tickets, put games on public television, and set limits on what coaches get paid.
If not, pay the players. A star quarterback should be as much as 8 percent of a team's revenue. In 2005, for example, that would have paid Texas quarterback Vince Young roughly $5 million.
Lewis basically calls college football a sanctioned theft of athletes. Think of that next time we're all singing "Tequila."