Mike Golic’s Optimism for Safe Football Is Pure Fantasy

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

I know a youth league football coach who once duct-taped his 10-year-old son’s wrists together for an entire practice to stop the aspiring quarterback from separating his palms when taking the snap from the center.

I know another coach who admonished his crying, belly-aching 8-year-old boy by shouting, “Unless there’s throw-up dripping from your face mask, get back in the huddle!”

And I can recall dozens of pee wee coaches and fathers downplaying a head injury sustained by a child on the football field by saying something akin to this age-old gem: “You’ll be fine. You just got your bell rung.”

Forgive my pessimism, but as long as football continues to attract these types of “You hit like a girl!” gorillas to teach the game to children, no amount of Heads Up football is going to make the sport safer.

USA Football bills its “Heads Up Football” campaign as a national initiative to help make the game “better and safer.” While emphasizing proper equipment fitting, concussion awareness and heads up tackling, the program is woefully deficient in its understanding of two important elements of youth football:

  1. The typical youth pee wee football league relies on minimally qualified individuals to volunteer to coach its teams. Passing a criminal background check and being able to get off work by 5 p.m. are basically all it takes.
  2. With football, chaos is at hand in virtually every play. Tackling is a car wreck; it’s impossible to choreograph heads-up collisions involving children — never mind college or NFL players — running full speed at each other.
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Helmet to helmet hits are unavoidable at every level.                                Credit: Eileen Torres

USA Football advises coaches to limit live contact as much as possible at practice. Sadly, there are leagues allowing teams — with players as young as 5 and 6 — to practice in full equipment in the middle of July.These completely unnecessary sessions typically are justified by gung-ho coaches who get their players’ parents fired up with Vince Lombardi quotes and an exclamation to the boys that “This is what champions are made of.”

Dude, relax. They’re first graders.

Former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic has used his nationally syndicated radio program as a platform to spread the good word that Heads Up is making the sport safer and that the youth coaches of today are instilling fundamentals that will drastically decrease the amount of head injuries suffered by future NCAA and NFL players.

When LeBron James told ESPN.com that he does not let his sons, LeBron Jr., 10, and Maximus Bryce, 7, play football, Golic, on a “Love it or Shove it” segment of ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike, reacted with a rant about football safety.

“I completely shove it,” Golic said of James’ statement. “Football to me, especially at the youth league (level) is as safe as it’s ever been. There is such a premium on… concussion awareness, on equipment fitting, on proper tackling. Kids are learning to hit the right way. The next generation of our players are going to tackle better, and have better fundamentals, and have better technique… and hopefully not get hurt.”

This is pure fantasy. Considering that youth leagues and school districts cannot possibly afford what it takes to make the game safer — proper coaching training, certified medical personnel at every game and state of the art helmets and other equipment — Golic’s vision of a brighter and less injurious day for football is a pipe dream.

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Tackling is a car wreck. There is no way to choreograph it. Credit: Eileen Torres

And really, even if all of those measures are taken, tackle football, given its combative objectives, can never be deemed “safe.”

But that won’t stop the NFL — which has acknowledged in federal court papers thatone in three NFL players will develop neurological problems at “notably younger ages”— from trying to convince the populace that football is safe enough.

In what seems an obvious reaction to a recent decline in youth league participation, the league has held dozens of “Moms Football Safety Clinics” at NFL cities across the country. The clinics run mothers through tackling drills, provide concussion awareness education and deliver instruction on helmet fitting.

Golic talks about the clinics on his radio show, mentioning that his wife Christine speaks at the clinic as an ambassador for the NFL and the Heads Up initiative.

“We want to assure mothers that the game is safer and better than ever before. We want them to participate,” Christine Golic, whose two sons played football at Notre Dame, told the Detroit Free Press after speaking at a clinic hosted by the Detroit Lions.

Ignorance is bliss, and clearly the Golics are akin to it.

Cover Photo Credit: Steve Baker

High School Football Deaths Stir Disturbing Memories of Youth Football

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

What follows is a true American football moment. It happened on Long Island.

“Break his leg! Break his f—ing leg!”

It was the waning moments of a damp September fourth quarter, and football, as it often does, had brought out the ugly side of one of its fans. In this case, the red-faced rooter was a 30-something dad imploring his son, an outside linebacker, to maim the opposition’s running back.

The boys playing were nine and 10. Fifth grade. Pee wees.

The father wasn’t a coach. Nor was he one of the three volunteers holding the yard markers. But there he was, stomping along the sideline, ensuring junior could hear dad’s commands.

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Credit: Eileen Torres


I can only surmise that this man’s sideline presence and profanity were permitted because his place of business hosted end-of-season award parties for teams in the local pee-wee league. Perhaps, his bulging biceps and the veins popping from his neck also played a role.

Similarly boorish was the head coach of the team this father was pulling for. His own son had an intense fear of football’s most basic requirement – hitting. To remedy this lack of meanness, the coach took several drastic measures.

Two were especially disturbing.

During practice, he routinely would sic the two most aggressive players on the team against his son during full-contact drills. “Again,” he shouted, each time his son wound up on the wrong end of a ferocious pummeling. Yes, some 10-year-old’s hits are ferocious.

“Don’t help him up,” the coach would add. Only after the tears flowed from his son’s eyes did this moronic exercise cease.

As if this wasn’t enough to encourage his son to hate him (and football), the coach had the same two boys come to his home to engage in hitting drills with his son in the backyard. This time – the coach bragged to me – the drills continued in spite of his son’s crying.

The coach wasn’t much nicer to the rest of his players. Random and nonsensical screaming were the norm during practices. And his sideline griping at games was legendary in its filth, particularly those times when his team fell a “c— hair” short of reaching a first-down.

Taught and played correctly, football is an incredibly violent game, where the threat of serious injury hovers over every single play. Even the kookiest football parents – the ones that spew blood-curdling screams and howl like wolves when their sons do them proud with big hits and long runs – fear the worst during games and are thankful after every play that their son doesn’t need to be carried off the field.

So when you add irresponsible parents masquerading as coaches to the sport, the results are frightening.

From youth leagues to the National Football League, inspiring, compassionate and sensible coaches are abundant at every level of the grid-iron food chain. But so are the ignorant, selfish and immoral ones.

Coach Brady Hoke at the University of Michigan has been widely criticized for allowing his wobbly sophomore quarterback Shane Morris to remain in the Wolverines’ home game Saturday, Sept. 27, against Minnesota after a crushing hit that left him stumbling, dazed and obviously concussed.

Students and other fans are calling for Hoke’s job. Though, sadly, they really want Hoke axed more because his team is lousy than because of the way he handled his quarterback. Still, a team as big as Michigan’s has dozens of coaches and trainers. Someone should have acted fiercely enough to keep the injured Morris off the field.

When the news flashed on my phone Wednesday night that 16-year-old Tom Cutinelladied after a violent collision playing football for Shoreham-Wading River High Schoolin Long Island, New York, I was horrified. My thoughts quickly raced to my teenage son, sleeping in the bedroom down the hall. He wasn’t yet five and barely 40 pounds when he started playing tackle football.

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Credit: Eileen Torres

Outwardly, he enjoyed the game, getting high praise for wild touchdown runs and earning monikers like “assassin” and “terminator” for big hits. But after 10 seasons in helmet and pads, this summer he asserted he would not be playing this fall.

I was quite concerned with what he’d do with his time after school, but my gut reaction was relief – intense relief. Join the golf team, I suggested.

I helped coach my son’s youth league teams and I shake my head at some of the tackling and blocking drills I ran my players through. Looking to instill a toughness in little kids who wanted no part of colliding full speed with another child, I reasoned that I was protecting them – that they would be more likely to get injured if they played with fear.

I should have suggested their parents pull them from football and ask for their money back from the league.

Many people are reasoning that deaths like Tom Cutinella’s are random. But can it really be a surprise that now and then a child is killed playing a sport where players are dressed like modern day gladiators and success is predicated on which team hits harder? Also, consider that NFL teams erect statues of legends who were essentially paid concussionists, i.e. the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis.

There’s a magic in playing football. The game offers discipline and serves up powerful lessons in perseverance. And then there’s the camaraderie that you cherish for a lifetime. There’s a one-of-a-kind adrenaline rush that comes from battling with all you have alongside your teammates.

Whether we won or lost, I wouldn’t trade my football teammates from high school or college for anyone else.

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This is from 1990 when I was a senior outside linebacker for Buffalo State College. I am #48 chasing down the Hobart quarterback. Source: Buffalo State College

As a player and as a coach, I was under football’s spell for a long time. But the mounting data documenting the sport’s adverse health effects, along with the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse cases and the fact that college athletes still get no share of college sports’ $11 billion in annual revenue has broken the enchantment.

Clearly, with hundreds and hundreds of billions tied up in television contracts for college and pro football and with millions of fans attending games at all levels each week, football doesn’t need me.

But for the sake of its players, young and old, it needs some change. Here are some suggestions:

  • Mandatory training for youth football coaches.
  • Be certain youth players have properly fitting equipment, including a molded mouthpiece.
  • Require that certified trainers be present at every game played.
  • Ban tackle football to children under 12.
  • Eliminate for-profit youth football leagues.
  • Compensate college players financially – with at least something. Whether they’re a practice squad player or a Heisman Trophy winner, they’re all sacrificing blood, sweat and untold physical damage, while their coaches earn millions in salaries and endorsements and their schools rake in billions in revenue.

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