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‘Attack’ on football a threat to America? Fedora’s demagoguery misses the point.

UNC’s Larry Fedora talks about CTE

UNC coach Larry Fedora talks about football safety and CTE while meeting with the media during the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte in July.
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UNC coach Larry Fedora talks about football safety and CTE while meeting with the media during the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte in July.

Even by the elevated standards of football media-day gasbaggery and self-importance, Larry Fedora managed to carve a new path Wednesday, delivering his own pigskin-scented version of the “greed is good” speech from “Wall Street,” tying the potential decline of football to the decline of … America?

He’ll get a merit badge for that one at the next football coaches’ convention. Better yet: a medal, since he went on to explicitly tie America’s military success to its status as the only football-playing nation.

And he also questioned the documented linkage between football and concussions and the debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which will get him an invitation to Gary Bettman’s summer house of denial.

“I fear that the game will get pushed so far to one extreme that you won’t recognize the game 10 years from now,” Fedora said. “And I do believe, if it gets to that point, that our country goes down, too.”

What it was, was a matter of national security. Apparently.

Where to start?

This is all ludicrous, of course, the earnest hyperbole a little less dangerous than the willful denial. But in an era where previously indisputable facts have become curiously malleable, it’s worth taking the time for a little prima-facie refutation.

If football is under “attack,” it’s only because people have come to question whether its positives are worth its negatives, the main one being players left suffering a lifetime of debilitating health issues and a culture within the game that minimizes those risks. Meanwhile, the NFL and college football still tower over the sports landscape, especially on television. Participation may be down at the youth levels, and that should urge people like Fedora to find ways to make the game safer without losing its essential character, but Fedora hasn’t been asked to take a pay cut yet.

Even if football were in decline, which it is not, the idea that there’s any linkage between the game of football and America at large is one only a football coach could champion. Football as we know it may be a uniquely American game, but it and every other sport do not dictate our culture. They reflect it.

A recent study looked at the donated brains of former football players from high school to professional. Researchers found a change in the brains of former NFL players, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

If we’re going to start listing the unique strengths of the American military, money, technology, tradition, an impeccably trained officer corps and an all-volunteer force would top the list long before the ability to successfully run the inside zone or cover a kickoff. Fedora shouldn’t need a general to tell him this, as he claimed; he coached at the Air Force Academy. Besides, any sport can prepare soldiers for battle. The Duke of Wellington famously claimed the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Those chaps weren’t wearing helmets.

As for the linkage between football, concussions and CTE, it is undeniable at this point. It’s just a question of degree. There are studies showing that playing football even before the age of 12 can lead to lifelong health issues.

“I blame a groundswell of data that is tweaked one way or the other because I can take the data and make it look one way and you can take the data and make it look another way and whoever’s presenting it is the one that gets the say-so,“ Fedora said.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora talks about the safety of football during a media availability in the 2018 ACC football kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

No. No matter how you cook those numbers, they all still turn out the same. If Fedora wants to learn more, Kevin Guskiewicz’s clinic is doing cutting-edge work right there on UNC’s campus.

Football has many virtues. Fedora is not wrong about that. It teaches teamwork, responsibility, self-improvement, leadership and competition. (Just ask the Duke of Wellington.) There’s nothing wrong with trumpeting those positives and defending those aspects of the game at a time. But the idea that trying to make the game safer — make it enduring, because knowing what we now know, it is unsustainable — puts it under “attack” only distracts from the issues at hand.

“I believe the game is under attack right now. I really do,” Fedora said. “If we’re not careful we’re going to lose what the game is all about.”

Fedora later reappeared to clarify his remarks by, essentially, repeating them, although he did reiterate that he’s all for making the game safer and that is not what it is putting it under attack, but rather mysterious “people twisting the data.” But if the game is going to change so much as to be unrecognizable 10 years from now, as Fedora fears, the only reason would be to ... make it safer.

This amounts to football demagoguery, and while it is certainly amusing — and scene-stealing at what’s usually a relatively dry affair — outlandish comments like Fedora’s will hurt the game of football more than they help it. There’s a path forward that respects player safety without compromising the unique nature of football, for those enlightened enough to look for it instead of ranting about the alternatives.

America has bigger issues than football right now. Fedora might have had one Red Bull too many.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora talks about the quarterback competition between Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt during a media availability in the 2018 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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