March 21, 2013
Let’s make this clear:
Football is a violent game.
The game cripples young men, leaving many limping for the rest of their lives.
I’ve seen befuddled ball carriers wander into the wrong huddle. This confusion is, in a way, humorous, but the laughter fades when this wandering lingers for decades.
A friend named Joe, who is a devout Air Force football fan, sent an email Thursday. He protested an online headline from spring football. The headline described the Falcons practice sessions as “violent.”
“The spring practice was NOT violent,” Joe wrote. “It was tough and hard hitting but NOT violent.”
Hate to disagree, Joe, but Air Force’s spring practices were violent. I watched ball carriers get driven into the fake grass at Falcon Stadium, their bodies landing with a skull-rattling thud while their teammates on the defensive side howled in approval.
I’m not saying Air Force’s practices were especially bloodthirsty. Football, played and practiced correctly, is violent.
We reside in an encouraging, confusing era when it comes to football. We are awakening to the game’s toll as we listen to aging, brain-damaged players who can’t find their keys because they placed them, for no reason, in the freezer.
Most of us have joined the crusade to make the game safer. A few fans cling to the barbarous ways of yesterday. Most of us have awakened.
The game is changing. Shots to the head were common, no big deal, in the recent past. Those same shots now inspire personal fouls and, in the NFL, stiff fines. Ejections could soon arrive for college football’s head hunters.
A movement is gaining momentum in the college game to limit contact in practice. To construct a winning team, a coach must simulate the brutality of games at practice sessions. This simulation often leads to injury.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun serves as chair of the NCAA Football Rules Committee. He’s a sensitive man. In my decades of watching college football, I’ve never seen a coach quicker to join an injured player on the field. No doubt, he cares about the health of his Falcons.
But he’s also a realist who is skeptical of the merits of limiting the days of full practice hitting.
“Football is a very physical and combative activity,” Calhoun said. “Because of it, you have to train and they have to be training sessions that are physical and combative.”
I asked Calhoun why he avoided the word “violent.”
“I’m letting you do that,” he said.
Calhoun compared preparing his players for a football game to a boxer’s sparring sessions before a bout. He wants to squeeze every last chance to teach his players to thrive during the vicious afternoons of autumn.
“If you don’t train how to tackle right and block right, it’s very dangerous, I think,” Calhoun said.
He has a point.
But the game is very dangerous no matter what.