And then comes Mike Leach.
Leach, for the non-football fans reading this who aren't aware, was the coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. He had just finished a successful season and was one year into a five-year, $12-million stint as the boss. Alas, reports began to surface before their bowl game that he had locked a player in a confined area because he had complained about suffering the effects of a concussion. In the sports media, there was an amazing attention to what to me seemed fairly unimportant details: the player (Adam James) was the son of an ESPN analyst so there was a question of the boy using his father's leverage to exact revenge against the coach; James was described by Leach as "lazy" and not having a solid work ethic; James was placed in an unlit space with no room to move...or maybe not, and maybe was well-lit, or remarkably dark. Yet despite multiple stories combing over these details, the essential fact never was in dispute: Coach Leach took one of his players and locked him away as punishment for some infraction. Does anything else really matter, like whether he was in a dark or lit room? I say no. I call this a sadistic act of a megalomaniac--and any waffling about the particulars ignores this reality.
Suppose, for one moment, that Adam James was lazy and had no work ethic. So what? The coach has the option of benching the player in the hopes of motivating him (cf Nate Robinson's 41-point return to the Knicks after being benched for a month). He can exclude him from practice. He can, as an extreme, drop the player from the team. But locking a kid in any kind of closet is assault. I am glad his ass got canned, and pray that his work as a head coach in the college ranks is over. (I noted that a quick blurb on espn.com says he might be up for the head coach job at the Oakland Raiders for next year. Let's see you try those motivational tactics out with professionals, Mike!)
But Leach's story is really only the most disgusting in a year where some exceptionally ugly facts about all levels of football have come into sharp relief. The columnist Gregg Easterbrook has a really good discussion about the significance of Leach's firing. His main point:
You don't need to be a bully to be an effective football coach -- you can treat players in a respectful manner, while holding your own ego in check. But bullies are drawn to football coaching, and the fact that so many coaches get away with little-god behavior is an indictment both of the sport's culture and of the lack of supervision by the schools coaches work for.
At the Rubin blog, we agree. And the Leach incident is trivial by comparison to death by heatstroke, with one of the most recent episodes happening to a 16 year-old kid in Maryland this past July. Of the 39 heat-related football deaths since 1995, 29 have occurred at the high school level. Normally this is exactly the kind of statistic that drives me bananas--40 kids dying over a 15-year period is a remarkably small number compared to the overall number of total deaths of kids under 18 for that time span (roughly the number would be something like just under 200,000). But these are, in theory, totally unnecessary deaths, and appear to occur because some small-time coach with a big-time Napoleon complex thought that a kid asking for water on a 90-degree day while running drills was only something a sissy would ask for. Think I'm kidding? Follow this link to learn of Coach David Jason Stinson of Louisville, KY, who was charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment after a player died of heatstroke in 2008. Coach Stinson "ordered [wind sprints] as punishment for lack of effort on a day where the temperature...[was] 94 degrees." Despite such compelling facts, it took the jury 90 minutes to acquit Stinson. Stories like these make Billy wish he did have conventional religious beliefs about the afterlife, because then he would rest more comfortably in the knowledge that Coach Stinson would roast in hell for eternity. Alas.
To cap things off, the NFL has been dealing with the problem of concussions, and doing it rather poorly. Despite mounting, compelling data suggesting that frequent hits to the head in football dramatically increase the risk of later neurologic problems including dementia, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dragged his feet until the season was nearly over before issuing an allegedly "stringent" new concussion policy in December. Again, the small number of NFL players affected does not make this a public health problem. But as the above article notes, "the culture of playing through brain injuries in the NFL has also influenced younger players...because the governing bodies at the college and high school levels do not have rules regarding concussion management, amateur players routinely return after concussions, even after they are evaluated by a doctor or athletic trainer." [my emphasis]
Now that's a public health problem.