The Big 12 took another baby step last week when commissioner Bob Bowlsby announced a conference-wide limit of one day per week of full-contact football practices during the season. The SEC and Big Ten took baby steps in the past year when they approved medical observers in the press box who have the power to remove compromised players from the field. The NFL has quietly been taking such steps for several years.
Football is changing because it must. As the chair of the new NCAA Oversight Committee, Bowlsby understands this better than most. Bowlsby sees all the money flowing into his league and others from selling football games to television networks, but he also understands the reality. While the game has never been more popular as a spectator sport, its future remains cloudy as parents of potential future players grapple with relatively new medical data that suggest the repeated head-to-head collisions required to play football cause long-term damage. The people born after terms such as “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” and “sub-concussive hits” found their way into mainstream football conversation won’t hit high school for at least five more years. Bowlsby knows something must be done to keep the game from withering as the years pass. “I’ve had a couple of pretty prominent football coaches tell me, ‘One of the reasons I don’t apologize for my compensation is because I don’t know that this game is going to be around forever,’” Bowlsby told me in an interview in May. “When people at the top of the game tell you stuff like that, it kind of causes you to take pause.” So the leagues have taken small steps. It won’t be long before they start to ponder fundamental changes, and that’s when the real fight will begin.
As the head of a Power Five league and the chair of the committee that ultimately oversees football rules, Bowlsby is in a unique position to help guide that change. But he and any other reform-minded leaders will face resistance from a group that wants to co-opt football’s issues for their own purposes.
Football has become a political issue, and like many political issues, it has been reduced to what seems to be a simple choice: A or B, good or evil. This sort of parsing gets clicks online and draws eyeballs on television, but it does not actually solve anything because it ignores nuance and facts. Still, because we in the media like clicks and eyeballs and don’t mind being complicit in making everyone dumber, we go along with this dichotomy. So if you like football, you’re now either a savage who supports the human equivalent of dogfighting or a patriot defending our true national game against an onslaught of whiny hippies.
I love football, but I see no problem with adjusting the rules to make the game safer. I would like my son to play it and learn the same lessons I did about teamwork and work ethic and perseverance. I use those lessons every day in the real world, and I consider what I learned playing football to be more valuable than anything I learned in a classroom. Unfortunately, I hate thinking about the risks. Most people who played at any level before the concussion crisis have gone back and counted the number of times they were probably concussed. Those people may not have received any medical care for their concussions. They may not have even missed a play at a practice or in a game. This didn’t happen because their coaches were barbarians. It happened because no one knew better. Now we do know better. So the game needs to change. As a parent, I can’t endorse my son playing football unless I think the risks are effectively mitigated.
I’m apparently not alone. After releasing a story on Sunday about one former Pop Warner league player’s struggle since getting paralyzed on the field, ESPN reporter Tom Farrey tweeted out a sobering statistic.
Q: What's happened to participation amid injury concerns? A: Down 28.6% from 2008 to '13 w/6-12 yos. Most team sports down, though less so.— Tom Farrey (@TomFarrey) July 26, 2015
While high school football participation recently rose after a pronounced dip that may have had more to do with the economy than injury concerns, the real question is whether parents of very young children will be comfortable when their offspring reach high school. If the game can change, there may be no drop-off at all. In fact, the game might improve as a result. It did before.
This is not the first time football has been in crisis because of injury issues related to the brutality of the sport. Colleges had to change the rules of the game to save football in 1905 and again in 1910. The first time, a sitting U.S. president (Teddy Roosevelt) ordered the leaders of football-playing schools to alter the rules or risk having the sport shut down. The changes adopted in 1906 included an increase in the distance to gain for a first down (from five yards to 10) and the creation of a neutral zone. The forward pass was also legalized, but with so many restrictions that it was too schematically risky to use. Dropped passes resulted in 15-yard penalties. An incomplete pass that fell without being touched resulted in an automatic turnover. Five years later, a future U.S. president (Princeton president Woodrow Wilson) helped shape another rules change and head off another crisis. In that round, most of the restrictions were removed from the forward pass. Those rules provided the framework for the modern game.
More than a century later, football might need another major rules adjustment to stay alive. So far, leagues have been careful to tweak the rules without making any fundamental changes to the game. The change the Big 12 announced last week might sound dramatic, but the truth is coaches have been backing off full contact at practice for decades. Come November, a lot of coaches avoid full-contact practices altogether to keep teams healthy. In the NFL, teams are allowed 14 full-contact practices in the 17-week regular season; 11 must be used in the first 11 weeks.
Big 12 coaches had no issues with a rule that enforces changes they have already made. “I had no resistance to it cause that’s really what we already do,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said last week. “On Tuesdays we don’t even hit that much, but we tackle some ... Wednesday is more of the throw game. Thursdays we don’t hit at all and we don’t hit Friday. We had talked about this [as a conference] a year ago, so it doesn’t affect us at all.” In this case, a competitive concern dovetailed with a safety concern. “There’s a false sense of we just try to bang our kids around, but I think all of us, we like keeping our jobs, and we want to keep our kids healthy,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “We’ve all been like that. … Fresh shoulders, fresh legs means more physical players.”
The best way to adjust the rules is to convince coaches that the changes align with their competitive sensibilities. For instance, if college football’s leaders wanted to strengthen the targeting rule or create a “strike zone” between the thighs and the chest, they could point to the Seattle Seahawks’ adoption of the rugby tackle as an example of how tackles that fit within such a rule are actually more effective. To help their case, they could point to Ohio State’s embrace of the technique in 2014.
There will, of course, be issues that divide the football community for competitive reasons. If, for example, leaders of the sport wanted to expand the neutral zone to reduce sub-concussive hits along the line, they'd certainly face resistance from defensive-minded coaches, and they might face resistance from coaches who favor a power-run game or the option. But recall that former Yale coach Walter Camp, who helped shape the rules of the game more than anyone, opposed opening up the rules on the forward pass since he knew it would render his team’s style of play obsolete. “The American collegian, whether player or spectator, does not care for a game in which the element of chance is paramount. He likes to see or play a game where hard work counts, and a game where definite planning secures a well-appreciated result,” Camp wrote in a 1907 op-ed for the Yale Daily News. “For this reason he does not care for the unlimited forward pass, which can now be tried without severe penalty on first and second down. Throwing the ball around indiscriminately may be the last resort of a weak or inferior team, and as such is unsatisfactory.”
Over the past 108 years, the spectators have proven Camp quite wrong. They love watching the ball being thrown around indiscriminately. The pass did indeed allow weaker teams to close competitive gaps against stronger ones, and that made the game more interesting.
This is important to remember, because the next rule change on the order of the legalization of the forward pass is coming, and it’s likely coming in the next few years. People will complain, but remember, the pass brought the game back from near-certain death and helped it become America’s most popular spectator sport. Maybe the next big change will help end this current crisis and usher in a new era.
A random ranking
Scroll down to the "What's Andy eating?" section to get your ordered list fix. Today, I rank the nation's best gas stations.
1. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller revealed to SI’s Pete Thamel his plan to switch from quarterback to an H-back role. That decision will turn the Buckeyes’ 2015 quarterback competition from the most fascinating camp storyline ever into your garden-variety choice between a Heisman Trophy contender and a guy whose entire starting career consists of postseason wins. The decision will also make an already loaded Ohio State offense even better. Before I broke down how a three-man race would work in last week’s Punt, Pass & Pork, I mentioned that if Urban Meyer wanted Miller to switch positions, he should just show him some highlights of Percy Harvin’s career at Florida. After Miller discussed the position switch, I went back and watched some of those Harvin highlights.
Then I watched some Miller highlights from 2013.
Yes, this is going to work out very, very well for the Buckeyes.
2. Steve Spurrier’s hastily called press conference last Wednesday was about two things: Spurrier was mad at something Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley had said, and Spurrier was mad that opposing coaches were using his age—and Spurrier’s own quote about when he would be ready to retire—against him in recruiting. In my column about the presser, I mentioned that Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is facing the same issues on the recruiting trail. Then I realized I didn’t know off the top of my head how old Frank Beamer is. So, after looking up the number, I began to look up the ages of other prominent coaches and realized this would make an interesting and slightly challenging matching game. Try to match the coach (listed alphabetically) with his correct age. The answers will appear later in this section.
3. Despite being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January, Iowa State defensive lineman Mitchell Meyers has been working out and plans to return to the team in September. On Friday, Meyers celebrated a milestone—his final chemotherapy treatment. As Meyers “rang the bell” to commemorate the end of his treatment, he found that dozens of teammates had come to celebrate with him. Fair warning: Things might get a little dusty when you click on the below video.
4. Wisconsin lost the top-rated recruit in its 2015 class last week when tailback Jordan Stevenson was denied admission to the university. Stevenson meets the NCAA’s minimum standards for eligibility—which is why lots of schools contacted him after Wisconsin cut him loose—but doesn’t meet Wisconsin’s standards. This is a prime example of one of the main issues that sent coach Gary Andersen running to Oregon State this off-season. James Carlton of FOX Sports Wisconsin broke down how Wisconsin’s admission policies have affected the Badgers’ recruiting since ’12. What’s interesting is, of the nine players who learned late in the process they wouldn’t be admitted, three wound up at other Big Ten schools.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with having tougher academic standards. It’s admirable that Wisconsin’s university administrators wouldn’t want to admit students they didn’t feel could succeed at the school just so their team could win football games. Stanford requires much more from potential students than the NCAA does, and its down-to-the-wire admissions process can drive coaches crazy. Notre Dame and other highly ranked academic institutions do the same thing. But it can get confusing when a state school denies an incoming player admission and other state schools in its own conference—which are ostensibly peer institutions—don’t. That’s the issue at Wisconsin, where a player who was expected to help the Badgers may wind up playing against them.
5. Stevenson, from Dallas, told 247Sports.com that he would now decide between Alabama and Nebraska. He also told the site that he was headed to Lincoln for an official visit. Of course, that was pretty easy to figure out based on this tweet from Andy Vaughn, the Cornhuskers’ director of football and recruiting operations.
6. Florida had two players hit with the decidedly old-school misdemeanor charge of defrauding an innkeeper for less than $300 when they were accused of skipping out on their checks on July 4 at a Gainesville bowling alley. Running back Adam Lane is accused of leaving with an unpaid bill of $16.93, and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley is accused of leaving with an unpaid bill of $42.34.
Florida State fans who sat through round-the-clock coverage of the great Crab Leg Heist of 2014 are probably wondering why this isn’t bigger news. Short answer: Neither Lane nor Brantley won the Heisman Trophy last year. But Lane did earn a degree of fame during last season’s Birmingham Bowl that might help him with his legal defense in this case. He can probably argue that he needed to get home before he had another accident.
7. If the coaching thing doesn’t work out, Miami’s Al Golden has a bright future as a play-by-play man.
8. Another week, another adidas uniform reveal. Fortunately, Nebraska is only planning on wearing this one once: Oct. 24 against Northwestern.
9. Here’s your answer key for the coaching age matching game.
Les Miles, 61
Nick Saban, 63
Frank Beamer, 68
George O’Leary, 68
Steve Spurrier, 70
Bill Snyder, 75
10. Admit it. You’d watch this as a reality show.
What's eating Andy?
This would have been my favorite New York Times crossword puzzle clue/answer ever. Unfortunately, like so much of what I type, it was wrong. Spoiler alert: The answer to 70 Down is LEANNRIMES.
What's Andy eating?
During a recent conversation with SI.com college football editor Ben Glicksman, the subject turned to gas stations. Glicksman spent one portion of his childhood in central Pennsylvania and another in western Pennsylvania, so naturally we talked about the glory of Sheetz, the Altoona-based chain of convenience stores that allows customers to tap a screen at 2 a.m. and be presented with a meatball sub minutes later.
I have strong opinions on gas stations for good reasons. My job requires me to travel through unfamiliar places, often at odd hours. A great gas station or truck stop can improve a long drive dramatically. My first job was covering Tennessee sports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. I lived in Knoxville, but my fiancée was finishing her bachelor’s degree in Gainesville, Fla. So I visited a lot of the gas stations on the 550-mile stretch of Interstate 75 between Knoxville and Gainesville. I usually wound up dining on convenience store food because I tended to drive through the night. (I had to work during the day. I didn’t realize I also needed sleep until much later.) This was before satellite radio, so outside of the three-hour stretch when I could hear Atlanta’s 99X, my chief entertainment options were screaming preachers on the AM dial and perusing the goods available at truck stops. That two-year stretch gave me a special appreciation for a well-lit gas station with clean restrooms and a wide selection of food and drinks.
So, here is a list of the top five gas station chains. Feel free to call it up the next time you hit the road.
On Interstate 10, the billboards for this Texas-based chain begin as far east as the Florida panhandle. Before I set foot in a Buc-ee’s flagship store, I wondered why anyone would bother advertising for a gas station five states away. When I first set eyes on the rows of gleaming gas pumps, the huge wall of fountain drinks and the spotless, massive men’s room, I understood. Buc-ee’s flagship stores answer the unasked question: “What would happen if someone made a convenience store the size of a Wal-Mart?” Buc-ee’s offers made-to-order food of every genre, and each flagship store smokes its own barbecue and features a massive selection of beef jerky. There is an unsettling amount of beaver-related merchandise for sale, but that still doesn’t take away from pristine bathrooms with ample space between urinals and stalls that are better appointed than most of the apartments I occupied in college. Buc-ee’s was limited to southeast and central Texas, but it has recently begun expanding north. The Temple store opened last year, and the first Dallas-area flagship store opened in Terrell last month. Two years ago at South by Southwest, I spent two minutes on stage extolling the virtues of Buc-ee’s and its sparkling urinals. I’m told video exists, but I have yet to see it.
Sheetz installed a touch-screen ordering system for made-to-order food in an Altoona location in 1993. By ‘96, it had installed the systems in every store. This was revolutionary at a time when fast-food restaurants were only just beginning to partner with gas stations. Sheetz has since evolved with the times. Its coffee selection is one of the best in the category. Stores have made-to-order espresso bars that charge far less than chain coffee shops. Meanwhile, their cheery design and fanatical approach to cleanliness make each a welcome sight on long drives through Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.
Pennsylvania has proven to be a great incubator for gas stations. Wawa started 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia in Folsom, Pa., in 1964 and—like Sheetz—it was way ahead of the curve in combining delicious food with a pit stop for gas. Wawa’s famous hoagies are now available in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and Florida. Over the years, Wawa has added a huge selection of coffee drinks, and the stores ATMs remain surcharge free.
A clean store, a massive fountain drink selection—including a variety of fresh-brewed teas—and soft-serve ice cream give QT an edge over average gas stations. QT has 700 stores in 11 states, but my favorite is the one in Pendleton, S.C. There are few things more inviting than an entire wall of frozen delights when it’s 4 a.m. and you just finished writing about a Clemson football game.
5. Busy Bee
I don’t recommend taking video inside a gas station bathroom, but I do recommend taking a peek at this video to see the facilities at the Busy Bee in Live Oak, Fla.
The men’s rooms are equally amazing. Meanwhile, the store has a by-the-ounce frozen yogurt bar, fresh brewed tea, a Dunkin’ Donuts and a beef jerky selection that suggests the owners borrowed liberally from the Buc-ee’s business model. The only reason Busy Bee isn’t ranked higher is it doesn’t have enough stores like this. So far, this is the only one. These need to expand to every state in the union.