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CHARLOTTE — Prior to the start of interview sessions Wednesday at the ACC Kickoff media event, University of North Carolina coach Larry Fedora stood at the threshold of the media workroom. He shouted a simple syllable and startled the rows of writers and broadcasters. That was not Fedora's most puzzling exclamation of the day.
"Our game is under attack," Fedora asserted during his ensuing breakout session with reporters. "I fear (football) will be 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, that our country goes down, too."
In his initial statement and in the subsequent attempt to clarify that statement, Fedora remained reluctant to concede a connection between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease often found in athletes who have suffered repetitive brain trauma. The disease can induce memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, anxiety, impulse control issues and sometimes suicidal behavior.
Copious research has been compiled to establish a link between the head injuries suffered in football and CTE. Two years ago, the National Football League acknowledged that link. Administrators at every level of football have implemented initiatives to reduce concussions and establish more stringent protocols to treat head injuries.
Fedora's comments dismissed the campaign of care that leagues, including the ACC, have promoted. It is a troubling stance for someone in such an influential leadership position at a major university. It could caution the parents of a potential recruit who may worry if their child will receive adequate, empathetic care.
Fedora is not the "rub-some-dirt-on-it and walk-it-off" barbarian coach. That Neanderthal cannot exist in football any longer. We know too much about the detriments of past conventions. We know too much about proper hydration, adequate rest, safety measures and sufficient treatment for injuries, both the obvious ligament tears and broken fingers and the injuries suffered under the helmet.
Fedora certainly knows these things and he also knows the ramifications for mistreating his players. But only he knows why he would speak through such filtered ignorance.
Fedora exaggerated the significance of football on our society as he relayed a previous conversation with a three-star general.
"I said, 'What is it that makes our military superior to every other military in the world?" Fedora recalled. "He was like, 'That's easy. We're the only football-playing nation in the world.' He said most of all of our troops have grown up and have played the game at some point in their life at some level and the lessons that they've learned from that game make us who we are."
With all due respect to the unnamed general, if Fedora accurately relayed the story, that stance is simply uninformed. American football is played on the youth, high school and club levels in several other countries, including Canada, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland, France, Czech Republic, Sweden, Israel, Australia, Croatia, Hungary and Japan. America does not have a monopoly on American football.
Fedora is correct- the lessons of discipline, diligence, camaraderie, cooperation and competition one learns through football are invaluable. They foster essential character traits that translate to essential life skills. They teach players how to handle defeat and triumph with the same level of grace and respect.
However, those lessons are not unique to football. Basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, rugby, lacrosse and any other team sport one can imagine offers those same lessons. However, those lessons are not unique to sports. Those of us who have grown up in sports and many of us who now make our living in sports can easily be so captivated in their virtues that we fail to acknowledge that those same virtues are readily available outside of sports. Countless activities from martial arts to creative arts require the same discipline, diligence, camaraderie, cooperation and competitive spirt.
Fedora's statements exhibit the stigma around football and sports in general. It is heralded as the chief proving ground for toughness, leadership and manhood. That stigma is arrogantly shortsighted. Football does not have a monopoly on character building. If that were true, how would Fedora explain the women fighting and leading in our military?
Portraying football as being "under attack" is simply a poor choice of words, especially considering the real attacks faced by the same military Fedora cited. It also reveals the poor state of our discourse. We are at a point where any dissenting opinion is viewed as an attack, and those dissenting opinions are met with swift and fierce counterattacks. That combative dialogue also allows one to dismiss documented, established facts. The earth under the middle ground has softened. In its place, there is nothing left but a crevice of communication.
Fedora attempted to protect his livelihood, to protect his passion. But we must ensure that football is positioned properly in our society. It is not an imperative rite of passage. If we are truly honest with ourselves, it is not even a necessary pastime.
Fedora loves the game, but his attempt to defend it against logic and science does not indicate that he loves the game more than the folks who aim to preserve it by making it safer. Football will change through the next 10 years, but that does not mean it must change for the worst.
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