If you’ve recently played or coached football - or even watched it on TV - you’re probably well-versed in the right way to tackle someone. Eyes up, head to the side, explode with the hips and hit the ball carrier with your shoulder, coaches say. Most importantly - never, ever lead with your head.
We recommend the opposite for football news conferences.
As evidence, we present University of North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora, who went viral this week after his heart got in the way of his brain while talking with reporters at the ACC Kickoff event in Charlotte. Two threads of comments stand out:
First, Fedora said he thinks the game is under attack, which he believes could do great damage to our country. That’s right. Fedora said he had a conversation a few years back with a four-star general who explained that America is great because “we’re the only football-playing nation in the world” and that football’s lesson’s make us who we are. If football keeps changing, Fedora said, “our country goes down, too.”
Second, Fedora questioned football’s connection to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of head injuries. Research has shown a strong correlation between CTE and football head injuries, but Fedora seemed less than certain of the link. “I’m not sure if anything is proven that football itself causes it,” said Fedora, who also hitched up his old-coach pants and complained about how all this worry about head injuries might make the game “less tough” and “less physical.”
We’re less concerned what Fedora believes about football and America’s greatness. A lot of us, from time to time, think that what we do is more consequential than it actually is. More troubling is Fedora downplaying the link between football and brain damage by asking for proof and suggesting that people are using football head injury data to focus on the negative.
The reality: CTE research, which is still in its infancy, has consistently demonstrated a link between the sport and long-term brain damage. A good amount of head injury research has been done on Fedora’s own UNC campus, at the The Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center. UNC’s Kevin Guskiewicz, a doctor who founded the Gfeller Institute, said Thursday he was surprised at Fedora’s remarks.
Guskiewicz, however, also praised Fedora for supporting the center’s research as UNC coach, even taking the step of having his players participate in studies - something that would make other coaches blanch. Fedora also has been largely supportive of rules and equipment changes that have made football safer. That’s important.
But his remarks Wednesday were a concerning misstep. UNC should have him more fully and publicly explain what he thinks about football and head injuries, rather than trotting out athletic director Bubba Cunningham to explain Thursday that Fedora didn’t really mean what he said the day before.
Our country has a complicated relationship with football. We’re concerned about the game’s danger, but we’re also are guilty of minimizing head injury issues just enough so that we can keep watching guilt-free. The last person we want doing that, however, is the coach who is urgently responsible for those players. Fedora can and should do better.