Jewish World Review August 13, 2001 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5761
In this case, even before the recent death of a Northwestern University football player, the non-sports media was already questioning the sanity of football training camps in the aftermath of the heatstroke death of Minnesota Viking Pro-Bowler Korey Stringer.
What has been largely lost in the near hysteria following these sad and unfortunate incidents is how incredibly rare such tragedies actually are and how much safer the vast majority of players are today than they were just twenty years ago. In fact, it had been twenty-two years since the NFL previously had lost a player to a training camp death.
According to a University of North Carolina study, 18 football players nationwide had died of heat related ailments in the five years prior to this season (a study released last week indicated that four times as many children have died in playground accidents during that time period). Considering the hundreds of thousands of football players who took part in summer practices during that span, that number is statistically in the realm of being struck by lightening. Obviously it is never an acceptable event when a young, healthy person dies an unnecessary and seemingly preventable death, but the stark and cold reality of existence is that life has risks, and that, sometimes, unfortunate things happen.
One of the unreported realities of this situation is that the football experience is not only almost always worth those risks for a young man, but also that those risks have dramatically dissipated in the last several years. Our understanding of the human body has come so far so fast that we have gone from most PROFESSIONAL football coaches still thinking as late as around 1980 that water was BAD for players while training (it supposedly caused cramps), to today when even the least advanced high school program makes sure that their players are properly hydrated.
The other facet of this story that would shock the politically correct crowd that seems content to allow our out of shape children to remain docile, Play Station-playing, Pillsbury Dough Boys is that the vast majority of football training camps are actually LESS demanding than they have ever been. Just ask any member of Dick Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles of the 1970's to attend today's version of football's "summer of hell" and they will likely chuckle like the old man who insists that he had to walk to school in three feet of snow, uphill both ways. The only difference being that those old Eagles wouldn't be stretching the truth.
Quite simply, the old stereotype of the "Drill Sergeant" football coach is largely antiquated and should be almost jettisoned to the realm of myth. From the pro ranks down through high school ball, the coach, for better or worse, can no longer afford to be a stern taskmaster.
In most cases it is now the players and not the coaches who have the upper hand in the relationship. At the pro level it is the player who is making more money with more job security than the coach, and at most high schools today the coach is afraid of working his team too hard and having his kids quit on him (much as Vermeil's Rams almost did to him the year before he won the Super Bowl). Also contributing to this shift in power is the fact that the players realize that a dramatic change in societal values (including lack of parental backup) has left the coach's, like that of their regular teacher's, holster of physical discipline weaponless.
It may sound harsh to say it, but it actually seems possible that Korey Stringer may have died because training camp had become too EASY. The Vikings practices are known as one of the least stressful in the league and Stringer, who weighed at least 335 pounds, apparently came to camp so out of shape that he couldn't make it through the first full session. Perhaps had he needed to prepare himself for a truly brutal experience like those from "back in the day," he might still be alive today.
While I have never played football, I have coached the sport, covered the college and pro game as a TV sportscaster and have written a book about spending an entire year with a powerhouse high school team in Ohio. Of all the hundreds of players that I have spoken to I have yet to meet anyone who told me that they wished that their football coaches hadn't made them work so hard because it really ruined their lives. In fact, the opposite is almost always the case. Hard work and discipline may be largely forgotten virtues in our culture, but they are still important. Since most of our young men no longer seem to pick them up in the home, aren't aloud to get them in the classroom anymore, and don't go into the military, where else but the football field can these values be learned?
We shouldn't let the message of these horrible deaths be that we take football, sports, or training too seriously and push our kids too hard. Instead, these incidents should be a reminder to us all to simply be careful and make the most of life while you still have it. That would be a far more appropriate way to honor the memory of these men who died doing something they loved to do, even if it wasn't always