One day within my lifetime, we may live in a world in which football as we know it is no longer played. And if that sad day ever comes to pass, and you want to figure out who made it happen, think of people like Mike Leach.
Few casual football fans seem to understand that the sport faces a dire existential threat. New evidence suggests that football-related concussions can create long-term brain damage on a frightening scale. Over the last year, influential media outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker have devoted intensive coverage to this phenomenon. It has completely reshaped elite attitudes toward the sport, which is now viewed as barbaric.
This does not pose a threat to the 2010 season or to the career of any player now on campus. But, over the long run, it poses an existential threat. Millions of parents who would have let their sons play football a generation ago will no longer allow it. (If the news coverage of football and concussions had existed when I attended high school, there's no way my parents would have let me play.) It is possible to imagine a movement to ban the sport, as Teddy Roosevelt attempted to do a century earlier, before being mollified by rules changes.
In the face of this movement, it's essential that football get ahead of its critics and take every possible step to ensure player safety. Sadly, that urgency is nowhere to be found. Officials have started to more strictly enforce the prohibition on helmet-to-helmet collisions. But enforcement remains very spotty - often the penalty won't be called unless the target lies motionless on the ground after the play. In one game this fall, I saw a defensive back launch himself in the air at a forty-five degree angle, arms at his side, head out, like a missile, with his helmet as the warhead, where he laid out a receiver with a shot to the head. This sort of play ought to result in a season-long suspension. No penalty was called.
The deeper problem may be the lack of awareness among coaches. Many still hold to the old way of thinking, whereby a concussion is a "ding" or "getting your bell rung," and a tough player will play right through it. That's where Leach comes in.
Most of the media attention around Leach has focused on his cruel punishment of a player, Adam James. Leach confined James to a closet for an extended period - certainly not an acceptable way to treat a kid, or anybody. But the more disturbing fact is what caused Leach to levy this punishment: James had refused to practice after suffering a concussion. To force a player who's suffered a concussion onto the field is a monstrous offense against his long-term health.
More than anything else, football's problem is the cavalier attitude of coaches like Leach. To save itself, football is going to have to revolutionize its mentality. Headhunting is going to have to be considered a totally unsportsmanlike act, not the equivalent of pass interference. Playing through a head injury will have to be thought of as grotesquely stupid, not a mark of toughness and team-first spirit.
The revolution needs to start soon. Texas Tech could make a good start by firing Mike Leach.