The Great American Football Crisis has grown more urgent in the late summer of 2018. Players have died (not just one), institutions have come under scrutiny, the viewing public has collectively wrung its hands in the service of one angle or another, as the viewing public will do. This latest meltdown has been triggered most pointedly—and most tragically—by the death of Maryland sophomore Jordan McNair during conditioning drills in June, and the subsequent reporting by ESPN’s Heather Dinich, establishing a pattern of irresponsible (being kind here) behavior by the grownups charged with not just coaching McNair, but also protecting him.
Even as the realities of McNair’s death were brought to light, the NFL commenced its preseason schedule, and concurrently rolled out the enforcement of its new helmet hitting rules. This led to a series of outrageous! calls by officials trying to manage unfamiliar enforcement for wary television audiences. The general reaction was a familiar one: Football was being robbed of its virility by suits and zebras, thus depriving fans of their minimum daily requirement of bloodlust mixed with light beer, chips and salsa. This seminal insult was hurled frequently across various social media platforms: At this point, they might as well play flag football. O.K., sure.
And even as that confusion unspooled, Ohio State this week decided that a three-game suspension for head coach Urban Meyer was sufficient punishment for his mishandling of domestic abuse allegations against one of his assistant coaches. At a press conference announcing his suspension, Meyer was offered an opportunity to send a message to Courtney Smith, the woman who has accused her assistant coach husband, Zach Smith, of abuse. Meyer declined and instead said, “Well, I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry that we’re in this situation.”
These three things—a young athlete’s death, football fans’ frustration with rule changes designed to damage fewer brains, and a millionaire coach getting wrist-slapped for apparently ignoring an assistant coach’s repeated abuse against a woman—are not of equal importance. Not even close. This should go without saying, but you never know, so I’m saying it just in case: They are connected. Each case is part of a football ecosystem in which the game itself is propped up as bigger and more important than anything that stands in its way. Alone among sports played in this country, football is frequently portrayed as not just competition or entertainment, but as Capital-I Important. The game is mythologized as emblematic of the best of America.
This is what University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said in mid-July: “Our game is under attack. I feel the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it in 10 years. And if it does, our country will go down, too.” Our country? Football is a sport, like lacrosse or swimming, but with bigger stadiums, better TV deals and more gamblers. Lots more gamblers. Arguing that it has a higher purpose in society is not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.
Jordan McNair’s coach(es) and trainer(s) (we don’t know for certain how many, but suspended head coach D.J. Durkin and deposed strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, for sure) were part of a Neanderthal structure that purports to build personal toughness and team unity through such pointless exercises as forcing a 324-pound offensive lineman to run 110-yard sprints (a form of “gassers,” in practice parlance) until his body temperature reaches 106 degrees and then he dies.
McNair’s death occurred not during football practice, but during off-season conditioning drills run by the strength coach, in this case Court, but it could have been any one of many in his position. Think about this: Conditioning drills? McNair was an offensive lineman whose best work would have been done in bursts of time lasting three or four seconds in a space no larger than a convenience store rest room. He wasn’t being conditioned, he was being hazed, as part of the culture of football that ascribes to the game the ability to uniquely build character and toughness and [some other noun plucked at random from any football book]. In pursuit of these qualities, football coaches—not all of them—have taken vast liberties.
None of this is new. Bear Bryant took his Texas A&M team to Junction in 1954. The guys who came from that camp are called “survivors.” Just over 20 years later, Gary Shaw wrote Meat On The Hoof, detailing abusive coaching practices at the University of Texas under storied head coach Darrell Royal. (Royal always denied the allegations in Shaw’s book, which focused on brutal “conditioning” drills designed to run off scholarship players who had not lived up to recruiting expectations).
(O.K., let’s get this part out of the way. Anticipating responses suggesting that I “never put on pads,” or other attempts at criticizing this column by emasculating its author: Yes, I played football, in high school and a little bit in college. Small-town football with my friends. I loved the experience so much that I wrote an entire story about it last fall, more than four decades after my last game. We even had a coach who loved the phrase, “I’ll tell you when you’re hurt,” and he meant it, and practiced it).
Football is, in fact, very good at building toughness and character and teaching the principles of teamwork. But football does not own the copyright on these qualities. Back to me (last time, I promise): For all that football revealed to me about my own strengths and weaknesses, it revealed not a bit more than jogging to a nearby college running track on a dusky, cold fall evening and running a set of six 800-meters repeats with a 400-meter jog in between. Alone. You finish that workout and afterward, you feel mighty damn tough. Every bit as tough as after rising from a kill shot in the secondary.
Toughness? You know who’s tough? Gabriele Grunewald is tough. A 32-year-old middle distance runner, she’s been fighting a rare—and incurable—cancer for more than a decade. In 2016 she had half her liver removed and last year she ran the U.S. national championships while undergoing chemotherapy. She had planned to race this weekend for the first time in a year, but had to pull out with a regular, old running injury. But she will race again. You know who else is tough? Victor Espinoza is tough. A 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey who rode American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015, the 5' 1", 112-pound Espinoza was thrown from a horse (who died on the track while running a workout). Espinoza broke his neck. He is not paralyzed, but he faces a long recovery. And he wants to ride again. Neither Grunewald nor Espinoza has played a down of football. Teamwork? The Golden State Warriors seem to have figured out teamwork pretty well.
Here is a truth about why football is “Important”: Because lots of people watch NFL games on Sunday, for entertainment. Because in big cities and small towns across the country, citizens gather on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons to cheer on the lads in blue and gold or red and black or maroon and white. And these are good and valuable things, but they are things that are true about many sports. Even if they are more true about football, they are not true exclusively about football.
But here is a lie about why football is important: Because it helps creates some sort of national toughness that can’t be manufactured anywhere else. I’m at a loss for whom to blame for this misguided notion that our collective durability in war and peace finds its roots in football. Did it start with Notre Dame and Army in the 40s? Or Lombardi? But even if that were true—and it isn’t—that shouldn’t absolve the misguidedness of coaches or the over-zealousness of fans who suddenly find that with attempts at reducing the likelihood of debilitating brain injury, their weekend entertainment is insufficiently entertaining.
The saga of football and brain trauma has been a liquid tale across decades, becoming more urgent. But if there was a tipping point it came on the so-called “Black Sunday,” of Oct. 17, 2010, when three particularly violent hits—Brandon Meriweather of the Patriots on the Ravens’ Todd Heap, Dunta Robinson of the Falcons on the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson and the Steelers’ James Harrison on Mohamed Massaquoi of the Browns—seemed to recalibrate the discussion. Football had become too violent and would have to change in some way. That seemed almost universally agreed upon.
Slowly, incrementally, that change has been implemented. It’s been implemented at least as much to rescue the NFL’s (and major college football’s) cash cow from the slaughterhouse as to create a safer environment for players. But let’s not quibble. (And whether football can be made “safe” is another issue. But let’s not quibble about that, either.) The game looks, sounds and feels different than it did in 2010. If you have any doubt about this, go back and watch those three big hits from 2010; they look like they are from another era, particularly the Meriweather Cover-2 shot on Heap. Wow.
But the NFL, with no real choice (and perhaps in search of legal cover) continues to tinker. This year they have tightened the rules involving the helmet in collisions and fans have not liked it. Taking the head out of football collisions remains an almost impossible task, and enforcing rules in this area is very challenging. This is what changing football looks like. A safer game will look different. But, predictably, fans have reacted with outrage that’s meant to imply that the game is no longer sufficiently barbaric—or… back to this word again… tough. This is all easy to say when somebody else’s brain is getting damaged, while yours sits beneath a dad hat in the man cave.
There’s another popular reaction to rules changes for safety. It goes like this: Any player in the NFL at this point understands the risks and continues to play. Also: They’re playing a game for which they’re paid millions. I would happily risk my brain for the salaries they’re making. As a society, we’re not good with empathy when it comes to our entertainment. Yes, most players now understand the risk, but that does not absolve the league from improving the safety of the game. Also, since the NFL is majority black, it’s not difficult to read some subtle racism into this attitude.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Dr. Harry Edwards, the noted sports sociologist and activist. Edwards consults with numerous professional leagues, teams and athletes. I was talking to him for a non-football story that’s upcoming in Sports Illustrated, but we did talk about football. Edwards said he has talked to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about player protests, in the context of the demographic of the player population. Like others, he sees the league’s percentage of black players rising over time, as a result of the brain injury crisis, as white moms more quickly remove their little boys from the sport. Richard Sherman has said the same thing. “That’s why they need to find a way to accommodate freedom of speech,” says Edwards. “This situation is going to expand, going forward, as the league becomes blacker than the NBA ever imagined being. When the 49ers play Dallas, it’s going to look like Ghana playing Nigeria.”
Yet in all of this, football often wins. The NFL and major college football are by a wide margin the most popular sports in America. College football stadiums are cathedrals, houses of secular religion on 12 weekends every fall. Collateral damage be damned. Sadly, it was inconceivable that Ohio State would fire Urban Meyer for sins involving the abuse of a woman. Football in the Horseshoe is too important for that. Before the season is finished, Meyer will be a martyr. (Watch: Players will write his initials on their shoes and towels and wristbands.) And Courtney Smith will be “adversity” that had to be “overcome” in the pursuit of a Big Ten title, a playoff berth and a national title. Too many people live for this. Too much money is at stake.
And this is where we are. High schools are already playing in some states. The college football season starts next weekend, before the calendar flips to September; Alabama is ranked No. 1 again. The NFL kicks off a week later; Brady and Belichick are still in Foxboro but watch out for the Rams. We will play. We will watch. We will bet. Because football is big. And flawed. And dangerous. And most of all: Just a sport. Nothing more.
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