Photo: Larry Fedora
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The week that was for Larry Fedora and how he could have enlightened football fans while he waved the flag.
First, Fedora put up a trial balloon equating American exceptionalism and football during a preseason football tour stop -- the Pigskin Preview sponsored by the Bill Dooley Chapter of the National Football Foundation on Monday in Cary.
Moderator Jeff Gravely of WRAL-TV asked all the coaches assembled why they got into coaching. Fedora gave an interesting answer prior seguing into labeling his sport as American as apple pie.
"I knew as a freshman in high school I wanted to coach. I was fortunate to have both parents at home, but the impact that coaches have had on my life and what they were able to accomplish for me and my teammates had a profound impact on me. I knew I could not live without the game of football in my life. Football is what makes this the great country that it is. We’re the only football playing nation in the world and that’s what makes us special, unique and great.”
Equating football with character and patriotism is as old as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and World War II -- if not older, dating to President Teddy Roosevelt. Nothing wrong with that. After Army beat Navy to clinch the 1944 national title, MacArthur sent a telegram from the Pacific Theater to Army coach Red Blaik.
“To the greatest of Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success.”
But two days after the Cary stop, Fedora was at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. Asked to expand on his Monday comments, he blew too much hot air that popped his trial balloon.
Fedora transitioned to questioning the validity of research linking brain damage and football, referred to as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopahty). He wisely acknowledged the game is safer with new rules on hitting, but then he contradicted himself.
“Our game is under attack,” he said. “I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. And if it does, our country will go down, too.”
He was on a broader stage this time, so his comments rapidly went viral on social media:
USA Today’s Dan Wolken called for him to be fired as a coach/educator on a prestigious university campus. Others pointed out the irony of UNC as a research center for brain injuries. Fedora seemed to suggest CTE research doctors are like scientists warning about climate change.
For the record, here is Fedora’s full quote:
“I do believe that we are involved in the greatest game on Earth. I truly believe it’s what makes our country so great and I’m passionate about that. The things that we change year-in and year-out and tweaking are for player’s safety and is good for the game. I said the game is safer now then it’s ever been in the history of the game. That doesn’t mean you’re going to eliminate all the injuries, it’s just not possible. But the game is better than it’s ever been, and I believe the game is under attack. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose everything the game stands for."
The "attack” opinion prompted more questions.
“I’m not blaming anybody,” he responded. “I blame a groundswell of data that is tweaked one way or another. I can take the data make it look one way, you can take the data and make it look another way. Whoever is presenting is the one that gets the say so. Are there some things that are negative about the game? There’s no doubt about that but if you look over time and I can just tell you in my lifetime when I played early on to where we are today it’s a huge difference in the way the game is played and the way athletes are taken care of.”
Then he popped the balloon.
“I fear that the game will get pushed so far to one extreme that you won’t recognize the game 10 years from now. That’s what I worry about and I do believe that if it gets to that point, our country goes down too.”
Even MacArthur and Blaik, who founded the National Football Foundation in 1947 along with legendary New York sportswriter Grantland Rice, likely would have recommended pushing Fedora into a closet to save himself from himself.
If they were with us now, they might have pointed out to Fedora there are only 85 players on his roster. Those weren't all football players that waded ashore with MacArthur in The Philippines or aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. We're in trouble if 85 football players is all we can count on to preserve the future of a nation with 325 million people.
Instead, Fedora should have cautioned everyone we need more CTE research and continually evolving safety rules to prevent football from sliding down a path similar to boxing’s demise. A generation ago boxing shared the front pages with football, basketball and baseball. At the Olympics, television broadcasts featured boxing on par of with track, swimming and gymnastics.
He could have added no sporting event demonstrated American patriotism more ideally than Joe Louis defeating Max Schmeling in their 1938 heavyweight boxing rematch. Americans, mired in depression, embraced the African-American fighter for defeating Nazi Germany’s Schmeling as the winds of World War II blew. Sylvester Stallone used boxing to add to his Rocky franchise, matching his character against the Soviet Union’s Ivan Drago.
Fedora should have pointed out Americans eventually woke up to boxing’s link to brain damage. There was no escaping that conclusion once the physical decline of Muhammad Ali silenced his charisma. He should have cautioned boxing can't be made safer with its inherent goal of punching the head, but football's safer rules are designed to limit contact to the head. He should celebrate safer rules and CTE research.
Spend time around Fedora and you'll recognize he's smarter than he came off sounding in Charlotte. That said, he needs to understand so far Americans have only awoken to football's CTE dangers through the death of Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Webster and the suicides of other legendary players such as Junior Seau. He should explain it’s not just superstars that suffer from CTE. He could have recommended reading two recent books on the CTE deaths of Lamar Leachman and Dick Proebstle.
Duke professor Lori Leachman wrote The King of Halloween and Miss Firecracker Queen. It’s on her family’s life around her father’s coaching career, including on the New York Giants Super Bowl XXI championship team, following his playing days at Tennessee.
Jim Proebstle was a tight end on Michigan State’s 1965 national championship team that wrote Unintended Impact. It’s on his older brother Dick, a quarterback for the Spartans in the early 1960s.
In addition to detailing the physical decline, both books cover family experiences overlooked in media stories on CTE and famous athletes – the ordeals endured. Their stories, it should be noted, include the anguish they felt before CTE was understood as it is now.
Then, if Fedora wanted to prompt debate over America’s future, he should have simply implored people to get out and vote.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.