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John Underwood
August 21, 1978
Intimidation! Gang tackling! Pursuit! Those are now bywords in football, much as "sportsmanship" once was
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August 21, 1978

Punishment Is A Crime

Intimidation! Gang tackling! Pursuit! Those are now bywords in football, much as "sportsmanship" once was

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?The Cardinals' Conrad Dobler hits Dolphin Linebacker Bob Matheson in the head and draws a penalty. Later in the game when Matheson and Dobler lock horns, a bench-clearing brawl erupts.

Football has always been appropriately outraged by such acts. Bulletins are sent out deploring them. Administrators demand answers. Suspensions and fines are levied. The forearm blow Oakland Defensive Back George Atkinson delivered to Pittsburgh Receiver Lynn Swann's head was immortalized on instant replay and, two years later, still draws bitter references. Darrell Royal: "It was lethal, malicious. There was nothing brave or daring about it, nothing tough about that kind of play. A tough guy looks you in the eye, plays you jaw-to-jaw. It's a tough game. But that wasn't football."

People bought tickets to that game expecting to see football. But more and more, what they are getting is a game that has demeaned itself by condoning borderline infractions and ignoring the confused ethics of men like Doug Plank.

Gene Calhoun, a lawyer who has been refereeing in the Big Ten since 1963, is a voice in the wilderness, crying out for sanity. "If they wanted to clear up all excessive violence in football," says Calhoun, "they could do it with one 30-second bulletin: FROM NOW ON, NO LATE HITS. A guy's down, he's down. We're not going to let you demolish a player anymore. We're going to call 'holding' every time we see it, so don't hold. Don't frustrate players into retaliating. No more hits out of bounds. No more extra hits on quarterbacks. No more piling on. No more gang tackling when a back is clearly in the grasp of a tackier and going down. We're going to put a greater burden on a player to know when to let up, when not to use his body or head as a weapon.

"An official's first responsibility is to the players' safety. He gets a bulletin like that, and he calls a game accordingly. An official can call a game as close as he is asked to. But he wouldn't even try if the coaches aren't going to go along. No official is going to martyr himself. He has to have coaches cooperating up and down the line.

"I have a great respect for coaches. I've never had to call one of them for unsportsmanlike conduct on the field. I've never had one argue with me over a personal foul—the cheap shots everybody hates. But the trouble doesn't begin there. It begins on the practice field, where the player is trained. I've seen coaches in practice hold on to a boy's neck, then shove him onto a pile-up [and say] 'That's what I mean by being aggressive! That's what I want!'

"It's wrong, it's dangerous, and it's illegal, but when a player knows that's what the coach wants, he's going to do it. He'll take advantage of every chance.

"You see a ballcarrier go down on a slip, and the defensive player knows he's going down. But he comes up and pops the runner anyway, takes that free shot and hurts him. 'Aggressive play.' Even if the flag had gone down, it wouldn't have prevented the injury. Flags don't prevent injuries. Coaching would have prevented the injury."

Coaches are not monsters. As a group, they are probably as honorable and caring as most. Breaking rules can get them beat or fired. Or both. The great majority think of their calling as a high one, entrusted as they are with the development of young men.

But coaches at almost every level, from high school up, are under great pressure to win. Dan Devine of Notre Dame says, "When a coach starts out, he sees what coaches do and he says, 'I'll do anything to win.' So he cheats. He teaches win at any cost. When he's older, his career is in the balance. He says, 'I'll do anything to stay in.' " The margin for error is painfully thin. Vince Lombardi said that "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing," and although it might put a terrible strain on sportsmanship to accept the corollary that for every winner there has to be a loser, it is an accepted battle cry of coaches. Coaches are ever alert for a leg up, for the "competitive edge," for what is known in the business as "the fair advantage."

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