COLUMN: CTE & the decline of America — an afternoon with Larry Fedora

COLUMN: CTE & the decline of America — an afternoon with Larry Fedora

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Well, that was unexpected. 

With late August just around the corner, and the opening weekend college football kickoffs that come with it, conference media days are upon us. On Wednesday, it was the ACC's turn, and with it, the North Carolina Tar Heels. 

The goal from a team perspective for these events, a media blitz of TV appearances, Radio Row, press conferences and interviews for two lucky players and the head coach, is to build excitement for your team, not give anything important on-the-field away, and, perhaps most importantly,  not make any needless headlines that may embarrass your program. 

And while junior wideout Anthony Ratliff-Williams, junior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford and head coach Larry Fedora spent plenty time on the Xs and Os, including discussing the NCAA's new kickoff rule and some insight into how tight the QB battle is going into camp, the man in the visor made some comments on football's role in American life and CTE that put that latter goal in jeopardy, and made a fool of himself in the process. 

An eventful afternoon on a day that usually doesn't yield much. Let's unpack it.

Football's decline and the collapse of America

College football twitter erupted Wednesday afternoon shortly after Fedora took his seat at the interview platform in the breakout room. While I was off gathering some insight from Ratliff-Williams on Nathan Elliot and Chazz Surratt across the room, Fedora hopped up on his soapbox and delivered his thoughts on the proceedings of American culture. I didn't hear the initial quote myself or the exact context it was given in, so I'll let Nicole Auerbach and Matt Fortuna, both of the All-American, provide the play-by-play.

A quick sidebar, if you will, before we get into the things slightly more important.

To begin with, parts of these statements, while very hyperbolic, and not necessarily true, aren't totally out of left field for a football coach. One can argue on the merits of his opinion on the military, for instance, (in my opinion, the U.S. military's strength comes more from the amount of resources given to the various branches both in the number of servicemen and servicewomen working and in the monetary investment the country has made in technology in the armed forces, rather than the country's history playing football), but overall, it's just his opinion on the matter. We see that level of exaggeration used as a motivational tool quite often with college football coaches, and while it's silly, it's nothing extraordinary. 

The 'if the game goes down, the country will, too' is where people start to get interested, and where Fedora starts to get into trouble. Why is the game going down? And what does it have to do with the country going down too? It's a thought process that immediately leads to "the game is too soft" which then means "America is too soft." And after Fedora spent much of his opening presser praising the various rule changes that make the game safer, such as the kickoff rule allowing touchbacks if someone fair catches the kick behind the 25-yard line, it's a little bizare for Fedora to go there, regardless of one's opinion on the topic itself. 

His answer to how the game is going down, however, is that the game is under attack by outside forces, playing with the numbers surrounding CTE and concussions to fit their agenda. 

I wish I was kidding. 

CTE, why Football is a problem, and why Fedora just misses it

Given a chance to clarify his remarks a couple of hours later, Fedora added more detail, stating that, in his understanding of the facts, football itself wasn't the problem. 

"We do know, from what my understanding is, that the blows, repeated blows to the head cause (CTE)," Fedora said. "So I'm assuming that every sport that you have, football included, could be a problem with that." 

He's right, to an extent. The latest research from Boston University shows that repeated head-to-head contact, not necessarily concussions, is linked to the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

But by threading the needle with technicalities, he's being disingenuous. Every sport you have could be a problem with that, Coach? Sure, every contact support will have blows to the head to some extent. But which sport would have the most problem with it? Probably the sport that has the most blows to the head. Where there's subconcussive blow the head on almost every lineman each play, or on nearly every tackle? 

I understand why Fedora feels worried. Youth football participation is down across the country, and hardly a week goes by it seems without another retired NFL player saying he'll never let his kids touch the football. The decreased participation can harm the future of the sport, lowering its player base and making it less popular in the future. 

But comments like this, that appear so dismissive both on the outset and upon further examination, don't help his cause. If anything, they hurt it just as much as the non-specific hysterics coming from outside forces he sites as the game being under attack. Head hits, of all kinds, can lead to brain damage. Sometimes those can have tragic consequences, such as the case of Tyler Hillinski, the former Washington State quarterback who committed suicide at the age 21 and was found in his autopsy to have early stage CTE at the time of his death. 

And when the head football coach of a team in a Power 5 conference makes ignorant comments like that? It only scares off parents from letting their children play football. If Larry Fedora doesn't get it, how will my coach at the Pee Wee, or even High School level? 

I don't think Fedora is that far off from understanding the issue. He says a lot of the right things, about his responsibility to educate players at all levels of the risks playing the sport, the concept of head hits being the issue with CTE, and his embrace of the rule changes that make the game safer. 

"When I started playing the game, it was all about the head," Fedora said during his opening press conference. "You were going to stick your head into everything. And as we've learned and we understand the dangers of what's going on in the game of football, you've taken -- you slowly have taken the head out of the game. And so all the drills that you teach, all the tackling, all the things you do, you do it with the head out of the game, to keep the head away from the impacts."

That reads like someone who gets it. Which only makes everything else his said all the more disappointing and confusing. And likely why UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said that he was "surprised" by Fedora's comments. 

Fedora needs to read up more, find the actual studies, and talk to more experts in the field. He doesn't even have to leave Chapel Hill on that last part, with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kevin Guskiewicz, being one of the top researchers in the nations for concussions. And taking him at his word from his clarification, they do chat. Just just need to do so more often and with more clarity. 

Because if Fedora can't figure out the current reality, his visor may not patrol the sidelines of Kenan Stadium much longer.