OPED: College football took my son's life. It must change

Nicki Langston
Tribune News Service

My husband and I are watchful parents. We've always been protective of our sons, looking out for their health and well-being. Sadly, we didn't see it coming when football took the life of our son Zack.

Zack was a star athlete and lived for football. Although I was never a big fan of the game, I supported my son and cheered him on when he played at Pittsburg State University from 2007 to 2010. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was watching him suffer countless sub-concussive hits and concussions. Years later, we found out that Zack suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which eventually led to his death.

Zack's health situation was not as uncommon as it may seem. About 70,000 college football players across the U.S. are at risk for concussions and even CTE. These children suffer hard hits on a regular basis during practice and in games. Although these hits might not have many visible consequences immediately, the long-term effects are clear and devastating: depression, mood swings and, later in life, severe neurological diseases.

As a mother, I can't stand by any longer and stay silent. Football needs to change.

The NCAA, which leads the nationwide college football agenda, has known for decades about the long-term health risks of repeated head impacts in football but has failed to be proactive in enacting necessary changes that could prevent them.

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Whereas the NFL has instituted mandatory return-to-play guidelines after concussions, the NCAA has no standardized rules for players to this day. What's worse is that college football players need the guidelines even more than NFL players.

It is time for the NCAA to take action and protect student athletes. That is why my husband and I have joined a class action suit against the organization, on behalf of my son, to hold the NCAA accountable.

For many college football players like my son, playing football is a dream come true. These young student athletes will do whatever is asked of them. They will push themselves as hard and for as long as they're told to meet the expectations of their coaches and teammates. They won't throw in the towel because they're dizzy or thoughts are cloudy. They'll simply keep playing or "manning up."

It's the responsibility of those in charge, especially the NCAA, to educate both student athletes and their parents, and ensure that student athletes are following strict rules to protect them from the long-term risks of concussions. The NCAA failed to protect my son, and we can't let that happen again.

Zack was a happy and smart person. He loved his time at Pittsburg State University, but when it was over he went on to start his career. He had a girlfriend and a young son, whom he loved more than anything. It wasn't until a few years after college when we started to notice some changes in Zack. He had anger issues that he never had before and, although he hid it well, he also struggled with depression.

One day, he simply couldn't take it any longer and took his own life. He was only 26.

Before he died, Zack shared with me that he felt football was the reason for his health problems. We weren't fully informed of the risks involved in football, so we didn't know the potential for long-term consequences. However, several months after Zack passed away, my sister was watching a documentary and pointed out to me that the issues Zack struggled with were the same as the symptoms of CTE. I didn't know anything about CTE at the time, but we decided to have my son's brain tested anyway. Several months after that, Zack's CTE was confirmed.

We can't go back and change anything for Zack. All we can do is honor our son by sharing his story with others. Many parents who send their children into the care of the NCAA and a university think that what happened to Zack will never happen to their sons. But that's simply not true. More must be done to protect students and ensure their health and safety are not the price to be paid for playing college football.

— Nicki Langston is the mother of Zack Langston, who played as an outside linebacker for Pittsburg State University.