Last fall, two separate but similar messages went out to professional and college coaches. One, from Pete Rozelle, warned that playing-field viciousness and misconduct "do not belong in professional football" and would bring "disciplinary action." The other, from Davey Nelson, said that some of the tactics being practiced were "humiliating college football." Nelson said the "football code and rules governing unsportsmanlike conduct are being ignored by players, coaches and officials." He said there was no place in college football for maneuvers "deliberately designed to inflict injury."
Coach Wayne Hardin of Temple said he saw more dirty football last fall than he had seen in years—"guys throwing elbows, a guy sticking a helmet in the middle of another guy's back. I saw Michigan playing a team, up by a big score, and send in a guy, and three plays from the end he really clocked this guy with his elbow. He wasn't even involved in the play. On the last play of the game he tried to do the same thing to another player, but missed."
Coaches allow those things. They are a "coach's problem" instead of a "player's problem" or a "commissioner's problem" because football is a coach's game. If coaches do not teach good sportsmanship, they must be responsible for the acts of bad sportsmen.
Bad sportsmanship, whether it is manifest in a gesture or a blow, is a malignancy, spreading from within and corrupting the whole. The complaining party at the bar is football itself. The men who defile it are responsible for their acts as surely as the blow to the face is responsible for the fractured jaw. Football becomes what it does. You cannot peel away the acts of unsportsmanlike conduct like the leaves of an artichoke, hoping to find a pure heart. The rot outside is an extension of the rot at the core.
For the modern football player the path to victory is a series of semi-pleasurable bumps and knocks, punctuated by long periods of utter drudgery and moments of euphoria that will brighten a lifetime in their reliving. The best of coaches are taskmasters and demand only what they would do themselves. But if a player is immersed in a philosophy of rule-bending, if he is being taught techniques that cause injury—to others or himself—he has a right to know:
Is this what is necessary for the good of the game?
Of all the ill-begotten, ill-advised apologies for the plague of injuries in football, none beats the one about quarterbacks.
The quarterback is at once the most esteemed and assailed of football players. As the game's foremost expression of skill and leadership, he can aspire to be a campus king, and a quarter-million-dollar-a-year pro. But he must pay for this status. He is a likely (if not logical) focal point of fan abuse when his team loses and, as he goes about his business, the recipient of some of the most conspicuous acts of savagery the grand old game can muster.
This is as it should be, the apology goes. Football is the ultimate he-man's game. Football does not coddle gifted players. Quarterbacks are particularly gifted players and should not expect special handling. Thus: 1) the quarterback when injured is merely getting his fair share of the lumps, and 2) nothing can be done about it because if you tried you would "hurt the game."
Some good and sensible men subscribe to this foolishness. Even those who know the lumps firsthand.