Football at the Crossroads

In the late 1960’s an orthopedic doctor, concerned about the health of his football playing sons, wrote his observations. Dr. O. Charles Olsen’s book, “The Prevention of Football Injuries,” made note of the adverse and pronounced effects of “spearing” or head gear to chest tackling.   While this technique was effective and caught on quickly, the number of deaths and severe injuries rose as a rapid level never before witnessed before in football.

Dr. Olsen concluded that energy equaled one half of the mass times velocity squared. (e=1/2m x v squared).   The bigger, stronger, faster players were creating a force that couldn’t withstand head gear to head gear, or head gear to knee contact.

The consolidation of schools eliminated many of the smaller players.   African American footballers were added to the talent pool, along with weight programs, better diets, and better coaching, and in many instances steroids.   Tremendous contact ensued.   And, while efforts have been made to control this violent hitting, football is at a crossroads.

The question of the long term effects of head contacts have forced the questions of (1) are we dealing with concussions properly,(2) are we legally liable if we turn our backs on the problem (3) are the linemen more vulnerable than we thought and (4) can you “take the head out of football?” and on and on.   These questions have been around.   Perhaps no one has done more research than UNC Chapel Hill.   Dr. Carl Blyth and Dr. Fred Mueller have done yeoman’s work in an attempt to protect our young players.   This effort was begun a long time ago.   Dr. Mueller still pursues the data at the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

Pro football features a real ballet each game day.   The receivers and defensive backs are making plays that are at a new level of brilliance  . Truly a work of physical, human art. At the same time Olsen’s theory of force is hardly better exemplified than when a receiver crosses the field and is hit by a defensive back.   And, while a defensive back may be penalized for “head hunting”, he knows if he jars the ball loose, and or intimidates the receiver, his game rating goes up. While this risks tragic injury possibilities (his own included) is his job security a factor that urges him on?

The crossroads football faces include some other variables.   The more violent the hitting, the more the injury.   Yet the more violent the hitting the more market appeal the game experiences.   Are we getting to the “gladiator” level of violence?   And while college and professional football are in the crosshairs of violence, perhaps high school footballers are even more vulnerable.   And here is why: The weak and small and slow are eliminated at the college level.   But in many high schools, small players may face tremendous opponents.   These guys hitting the “canon fodder” can create catastrophe.

“You can’t take the head out of football” might become “you must take the head out of football.”   How to do this is the crossroads question.   I fear the 2011 season will make this even more apparent.   “I would let my son play football, but I would not encourage him to play football.”  James Michener, Sports In America 1976.


Looking back at the blogs did my suspicions hold up?
1. Football is still dangerous, and getting to be more so. Also–it’s no secret. Everybody knows (see CONCUSSION).
2. In pro tennis both men and women have learned the virtues of the drop-shot. One–it tires opponents quickly.
Secondly, it has a subtle psychological effect that discourages opponents. Years back I suggested Djokavic and Murray
were the most diligent in pursuing it’s perfection. Didn’t the 2016 French Open prove that. American juniors: Take
heed. Develop your drop-shot. And your DEFENSE AGAINST THE DROP SHOT. That starts with conditioning and footwork/posture.
3. College tennis again. There is a direct correlation between college scholarships awarded to Americans, and future American
quality professional players.
4. The Iraq war. History unfolds and reveals the truth. Unnecessary war mongering is evil.


In the mid 1960’S I was a small college assistant basketball coach. I suggested to my veteran head coach that a lot of teams were playing a “match up zone”. His reply was,”…Clair Bee wrote the book on basketball. Nothing has changed.” Only later while watching our film did I realize, “He is only filming the offensive end!”
As a fan watching today there is a lot of coach Bee’s weave and cut in modern basketball. Lot of defense too.
The obvious paradigm for all basketball people in the 50’s, 6o’s, and 70’s was the Boston Celtics. Auerbach-the coach. Russell-defense,rebounding, team. Cousy- ball handling. Sharman-free throw shooting. Sam Jones-clutch shooting. Frank Ramsey and Havlicek–the value of the sixth man.
In 1954 the Atlantic Coast Conference was formed. I was 14. Why were the coaches going north for players? It didn’t take long to realize these guys played harder, played defense, and played a full court press that we didn’t, nor did we know how to handle a lot of pressure.
Here are some more awakenings:
1957–We could be as good as anybody (1957 Tar Heels). Plus Lennie could shoot.
We could learn how to handle the ball. The first basketball summer camp was at Campbell College and Petey Maravich was our magician. Made a widespread film of him and his practice drills.
Boom! Then the BIG one: Integration. At the Carolinas Conference level our”first” was Henry Logan. Henry was our “Michael before Michael”. The game has never been the same.
I saw an interview of Isaiah Thomas when the question was asked about the great year he was having and was he the league MVP? Reply? Yeah, but have you seen what Michael be doing out there?
When all kinds of youngsters began playing with their tongues hanging out, a la Jordan, Michael explained it was a “mannerism” he simply adopted from his father, as he watched his dad work on his car.
My guess is we are about to see a whole lot of kids playing basketball while chewing a mouthpiece.
Whether anyone soon will be able to shoot from bleachers, sometimes without seeming to look, I don’t know. But Stephen is the new, new thing. And they will try. Buddy Hield of Oklahoma is the first to show a similar technique and ability. Up to this point, Curry is the best shooter I have ever seen.
There is a lot more, and to be fair, some of it is old-time fundamental stuff. While a great player can have a “man on horseback” effect on a team, this is not the case with Stephen and the Warriors. Maybe his greatest contribution has been the offseason work that developed the left hand skills (dribbling and passing and catching) that enables his teammates so often. Young players should never neglect passing and catching skills. Pros are great at these skills. Strategy also related that is time-honored: 1. pick and roll. Double teammed? Hit the open man. Curry is a master at this. Can he see better than most? Surely. At an almost “mystical” level. The Warriors as a team are similarly masterful at catching his assists. And they DO BLOCK OUT.
I wrote a tennis article yesterday about how today’s greats (Djokavic and Murray) have realized the value of dropshots. And are using them as Jack Kramer advised (“the fundamental strategy of tennis singles is to find out what your opponent can’t do or doesn’t like to do, and make them do that!”) Nobody likes being made looking silly trying to run down a great drop shot. And, as of now, not many can. They better learn. It’s is only getting more useful.
Maybe this is Curry’s greatest value. It seems obvious that in the final game of 2015 the Cavaliers threw up their hands in frustration. Didn’t the same thing happen to Oklahoma in the seventh game this year? And to the 2016 Cavaliers in the first two games? How does this guy leave teams and players this good (and they ARE very good), standing around in the fourth quarter with a look of puzzlement and blame shifting on their stunned faces? Is it mystical, or fundamental basketball?
Me thinks it is some of both.


World Cup soccer competition began in 1930. The United States men have never won it. Soccer is more widely played world-wide than any sport.
Title IX was implemented in 1970. The World Cup for women began in 1991. Our women have won twice. No other country has a “Title IX”.   Sports and sociology go hand in hand. Women’s college basketball has become markedly better, rapidly and recently, as more and more black women are enlisted. While the same is true historically for men’s college basketball, there has also been a major shift personnel-wise: Or the influx of international basketballers.
College track and tennis and soccer have a similar history.
Integration and Title IX were milestones long overdue. The law does affect who plays. Need based scholarships dictated a whole new landscape in American athletics. MUCH good has transpired.
There is food for thought. Five years ago I told all kinds of parents and friends that Title IX would provide tremendous opportunities for our girls, through golf scholarships. In just five years later, I wonder. Have you witnessed the women’s world golf rankings. The number of Korean players at the top is truly impressive. Due in no small part to a frenzied number of young Koran aspirants, putting in the lengths of practice sessions we reserve for school.
How long before we see college coaches bringing in entire rosters of girl golfers, borderline if not pro, from overseas? Tennis blinked and boom, no scholarships left for us.
What happens if internationals usurp collegiate basketball scholarships?
Was Title IX intended to offer opportunities for our women, or someone else? Other sports? Those to come?


People in my state, North Carolina, read daily about the “UNC ATHLETIC SCANDAL”. lots of opinions and pretty heated topic because of the importance of sports in our area. Particularly college Men’s Basketball. What to do about this conundrum? Pretty tough issues involved. “…once the *X##@ is out of the bull!”–Willie Nelson.
There are a lot of similarities between this an the immigration issue in America. Like kudzu, the problems are everywhere and growing. Not to minimize the Chapel Hill problems, but this not theirs alone: “I’m just the leper with the most fingers left.” Lots of staff meetings in college and universities (Athletic Directors, Academic Advisors, Coaches, etc.). NOTE: CEO AND TRUSTEES TOO!

Is it time for some straight talk. Stout action. What is this really about? Sports? Money? Ego? Education? RACE? All of the above and maybe more, much more? Remember all the people who have gotten in trouble talking about race in America (Jimmy “the Greek” for example?) Yet how do we deal with the “…elephant in the room”? In 2007 I wrote PLAY IS WHERE LIFE IS. I braved the following comment that may have been prescient:

“Much has been written about the “Black Athlete”. There is no question in my mind about the talent level of these athletes. Coming from the the South and being a minister’s son there was little question, early on about God. Certainly, in my mind he was male, white and looked a whole lot like Santa Claus. Surely too, he was lovable, kind, and simply a good “supreme being”. After watching sports in America the last forty years my guess about God’s nature is more Machiavellian. After watching America make a religion out of sports, while at the same time mistreating the black population so badly, I picture God’s role differently. My guess is we’ve put so much emphasis on sport He’s peeved. Think not? Watch where parents are at 11:00 am on Sundays if their child is in a soccer match. Hmm? Did God say “I’ll give these fanatics a dilemma!” He then put this glorious athletic talent in many of the Black population, and now He’s “up there” giggling at what America is doing with sports. Please don’t get me wrong. The Black athletes have paid their dues in practice, injury, and sweat just like anyone. Probably more so. Integration caused a lot of headaches in the alignment of conferences, etc. Who plays and who you play, is important, and alignment turned things upside down.

I do believe Proposition 48 (the academic guidelines for collegiate eligibility) yielded a lot of good. I wonder about the S.A.T and fairness, but it is a “hard” number. My guess is the best barometer for academic success is the athlete’s class rank. With exceptions, most of those who could achieve class rank had enough ability to succeed. Some can’t spell S.A.T. Some people are aberrant bastards who have no business in higher education. It always irked me to know that he beauty,education, and joy of collegiate sports was often wasted on an “athlete” who had no intention of benefiting from the true value of Sports in Education.”

David Epstein’s book, THE SPORT GENE, is truly informative. True research on nature vs. nurture in the development of elite athletes. I recommend it to anyone interested in sports and related research. Just very limited few comments from THE SPORT GENE:

“The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer is always: it’s both”.

“No one can argue that there was selection of the fittest slave.” (Yannis Pitsiladis)

“I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.” (Michael Johnson, sprinter)

“Here’s the conclusion of Peter Matthews, the track-and-field statistician who compiled those numbers:”In these days of computer games, sedentary pursuits, and driving our children to school—It is the ‘hungry’ fighter or the poor peasant who has the endurance background, and the incentive to work on it, who makes the top distance runner.”

The News and Observer has jumped all over the “Carolina Scandal”. Who knows what will come down as truth. One obvious fact is race as an issue is in bold print.
Comments from the public on an N & O article entitled UNC SCANDAL, with literacy advocate, Mary Carey, posing the blunt question “…why do we fail to teach so many black males how to read?” (Nov.10, 2014).

Samples of public comments:
…”why couldn’t these athletes maintain eligibility through standard classes?” The answer; because we as a state and as a nation don’t teach young black males how to read.”

“I can tell you first hand that the reasons many of them are struggling readers are very complex. Many of them come from families of very weak readers who don’t have the time, energy or resources to reinforce the first thing that is happening at school. …This is a cultural problem as much as it is an educational problem. “It is complicated and hard to watch and as most kids move on and those who have never valued reading lag and then get stuck behind it is heart breaking.”

“I taught MY children how to read. My children taught THEIR children how to read. It takes parents to learn to read—parents who read to their children. Kindergarten is almost too late, if the home is not a center of learning.”

“Their communities are failing them for telling them that getting an education is pointless.”

“Give the parents a livable wage so they won’t have to work two or three full time jobs, and they might be able to devote some time to their kids education. And stronger families overall, including present fathers, are also critical.”

If we really want solve or better the issue, then “…let us not talk falsely, the hour is getting late.” The fact that nature and nurture, right or wrong or a combination of both, have produced some truly marvelous black American athletes is obvious and a truth. By the same token it is immoral not to recognize and take significant responsibility for the same kind of results the sins of slavery have yielded.
Solution? No easy answers here. I once had to dig up a septic tank with a shovel. My “supervisor” said “…just keep pecking away at it.”
Another observation came from coaching tennis. Tons of internationals. Doesn’t take long to realize there are good and bad of all denominations. Swedes,Dutch,American, black,white, men, women, gay or straight, young or old. People should be judged on their individual merit.
M.L. Carr of Boston Celtics fame, was recently inducted into the NORTH CAROLINA SPORTS HALL OF FAME. Inductees and their spouses opened ceremonies with an entering parade. Some were shocked to see M.L. being accompanied by a male? His acceptance explained that the man with him, a white man, had taken taken a young black Wallace N.C. youngster with no ties, and mentored him all the way to hall of fame status. Carr added information about his current efforts his foundation offers to at risk kids. Maybe one at a time is one way.
I buy any copy of DAYS OF GRACE by Arthur Ashe I can find. Eventually I find a young African American to give it to. Bill Cosby is another leader. listen to leaders. Bob Dylan looking back,”…I would be kinder.” Simple. I found local examples. Leo Barker coached with us briefly at ELON. Coach Barker was an all pro linebacker with the super bowl Cincinnati Bengals. A black Panamanian and one of 16 siblings he was impressive any number of ways. Not long after his first practice I overheard one of our black standouts comment, “…Coach Leo, he doesn’t go for that victimology crap.
My friend and great coach Henry Trevathan speaks truth. He made have issued our fundamental challenge recently in a private conversation: “Tom,it is useless to try anything until families start to function again.”
Malcom Gladwell says reading lovingly to every child is indispensable. Without this parental effort failure is imminent.
My golfing buddy, Jimmy Smith, is one of eleven. What would your Dad do if you or your siblings were accused of wrong doing? I asked. “We had to tell him the whole truth and pledge not to do it again. Still had to take his punishment, but truth yielded some lesser sentence. Lying was hell to pay.”
How about Amnesty for College Athletics. The deafening silence out there now surrounds the arena. Nobody telling Daddy the truth? Hoping he doesn’t find out about me?
How about we all fess up, take the medicine and start clean. Put admissions back in charge of admission. No ticky,no laundry! Best first move? Stop admitting the thugs of any kind, no matter how good they are. They take up valuable slots that good kids will fill. Most all who replace the thugs will be black. The smart ones are good too!
Maybe college sports programs are not alone. Some others may need a cleansing moment. The business world, the catholic church, religion, politics….AMNESTY FOR AMERICA.


A fellow coach once suggested, “…the NCAA should be limited to 10 rules, and if they add one they have to eliminate one.”  In fact there is nothing simple about the rules, nor their enforcement.   Each year there are numerous attempts at control.  Some are major { like Title nine-equality for women, or Proposition 42-academic minimums, etc.).  None today rivals the $2000 “stipend” proposal that is currently pending.

James Michener observed that “America is the only country in the world that charges higher education with entertaining the public.”  The conflicts between money and idealism in education create a conundrum.   History tells us football and men’s basketball make the money.   The others want to play too.  Now what?

Only the big five conferences get tne NCAA stipend greenlight.  What happens to the borderline big timers not in those conferences?  How about the “mid majors” and small Division One schools?  NCAA D11?  JUCOS?  NAIA?

Each school will have some big decisions.  Nobody  seems to have any clear vision.  Is the paste out of the tube?  Is this a moment of opportunity, one that gives pause to higher education as a chance for reason?

My hope is that a code similar to the Doctor’s Hippocratic Oath ( “First, do no harm”) is at the top of the list.  Public school law says the teacher (coach) acts as the child’s parent (in loco parentis). 

Here are a few common sense suggestions if indeed reform is imminent:

1.  I  had 3 close friends who had big league potential as baseball pitchers.  All injured their arms due to overuse.  A coach should not ask a youngster to over pitch.   Pitch counts are a  rule that have saved some arms.

2.  College baseball plays too many games.  56 that balloons into 70.  Stop it.

3. Before football facemasks were required, 1 player is 3 suffered a dental injury.  After facemasks rule? 1 in 3800.  Good rule for eaters.

4.  Football has got to change the frequency of concussions.  Or lawyers will break anyone who charges to see the game.

5.  Women’s and girl’s soccer must create rules and training  that drastically reduce anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injuries.

There needs to be a lot of review.  Sports in America are way too important to be prostituted.  There are serious flaws, but the good vastly outweighs the bad.  Arthur Ashe stood firmly for equal academic standards for collegiate athletic eligibility.  He contended the capable will “…rise to the standard required.”  There is so much education in the proper use of sports, but if we give to the “thugs”, they eliminate the capable kids who can improve themselves, their families, and our country.   It is not racial.  Bad blacks eliminate good blacks.  Keep the right youngsters in our uniforms.


While we live in eastern North Carolina (the Atlantic Ocean is several hundred yards South of us) the coast of our state has an eclectic citizenry.   Lots of retirees, northern brothers,  and an influx of in-state folks.  Lots of folks moving our way.   The oldest and most unique locals are the “hoi toiders” ( or high tiders ).   These “down easterners”  refer to Kinston, N.C.  as the west.    They have their own dialect and vocabulary. “Dit-dotters” are tourists who come and go back.  “Ding-batters” come and, alas, stay.   Local lingo contends ‘…my lord, honey, they must leave their brains on the other ” soide ” ( side ) of the bridges”

We are also near Camp Lejeune or the Marine Base.   Having worked in two colleges my  entire 40 work years, some of my friends call me “Coach”, or sometimes “Professor”.  I  once asked a friend who had moved to Chapel Hill,  N.C.  how they liked it?   He replied “…not much—if you don’t have a PH.D.  or have a dozen books published,  most of them won’t have anything to do with you.   Some have contended the worst thing about being rich was you had to deal with other rich people.   My coaching colleagues put too much value on winning, perhaps.  Down here status often depends on military rank, noted careers.   I guess on Wall Street and in a lot  America,  it’s is money that does the talking.

While a bumper sticker in the piedmont might read ” MY CHILD IS  AN HONOR STUDENT”,  down here you could just as well see “MY BOY CAN WHIP THE CRAP OUT OF YOU HONOR STUDENT”.

I am not inclined to deny or resent “Coach”,  or having taught for a long time.  Nor do I get out of sorts at “here comes the (“liberal”, or “Obama”, or “the college man”, etc.).   I try not to respond , much as my oldest Son advised.   Last week a quote got my attention:   “The worst argument against Democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”  (Churchill?).   And  “…if you think education is expensive,  try ignorance.” If one thinks “liberal”  (freedom) is a bad word,  and the misspent  and mismanaged money on war in this decade has been “conservative” —why argue?

So—when one got over the line recently (” Coach, you have spent too much time around colleges”)  it just blurted out of me.   I asked him if he had any any grandchildren?  OH YES.  Tell me about them, I continued.  I got the usual “my goose is a swan” answers one gets from any grandparent .  Goes  somewhat like these cliches:  ” He reads two grade levels above his class. ” Or, ” She makes all A’s! “.   “I don’t know where he gets it—must be his Mother. ”  And others we all know, if we ask any grandparent.   Then he took a breath.

Quickly  I pointed out that I had never heard any of  THESE comments from a parent or grandparent:   “You know he is the dumbest little son of a gun in his class!”   or, “She certainly never made an A!” or, “…if he flunks the eight grade one more time he’ll be 16, and I think I HAVE GOT HIM TALKED INTO QUITTING FOR GOOD!’ or, ” maybe the 4th grade will be shoe-tying and potty-trained year.

He looked at me funny but  didn’t say anything.  I  don’t know whether he got it or not.

“Call your next case”.   Chub Seawell,  Carthage, N.C. —1955


In the early part of the last century the North Carolina legislature passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Asked about this action a young Sam Erwin concluded that the one good thing about this action is that it “…absolves the monkeys of the jungle of any responsibility for the behavior of the human race in general, and the North Carolina Legislature in particular.”   If the Republicans get by with their intentions in Raleigh, it won’t be the News and Observers fault ( “…lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too. Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through” ( THINGS HAVE CHANGED–BOB DYLAN).   Lots of issues.   I recently expressed my concerns about education and what’s going on with teachers.   A retired highway patrolman said he had carried a gun his whole career, and his profession had often been neglected compared to N.C.teachers.    I don’t question that profession and all they do and risk. Firemen, Policemen, and the Military.   I did note later that he had retired at age 52   And that perhaps soon, wise teachers may want to carry a weapon also.   School teachers have long been underpaid.   Add integration and discipline problems and many good teachers, coaches, and administrators have abandoned education.   If we continue to whittle away at this rate (abandoning tenure, cutting out aides, larger class sizes, no reward for increased education, no scholarships for talented future in-state teachers, larger classroom sizes, undermining the values of public schools and funding for them, etc.), who will fill the slots? Think for a minute. Fire Donald and hire Daffy? Who do you hire, Mr. Superintendent, or N.C.legislator, when no competent people will take the jobs?   Haven’t we seen too many sorry people who gravitate to youngsters, if allowed.   Who takes a job no one else will have?   Aren’t some of the problems we have with tenure because we had to hire improperly vetted dregs.   How can the proposed changes not make things horribly worse!
The old school tennis coaches will remember when we had to referee our own matches.   Talk about a mess.    Finally they funded one official.   Often these people were retirees:   Nice people who were underpaid but wanted to help.   Pretty soon some of the young coaches who hadn’t witnessed matches minus a referee, took this as an opportunity to argue with these sometimes volunteers, or underpaid godsends    It wasn’t long before you couldn’t find an official.   And those you got didn’t know an “unforced error” from most first marriages.   It is time, North Carolina, to get up on your hind legs and stop this ruinous, dangerous bunch.   PS.   Two contemporary authors of note made comments that are related: 1. Pat Conroy from MY READING LIFE: “…if anyone knows a more important profession than teaching i wish they would let me know what it is before I die.”   And 2. From Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS: Paraphrasing Mr. Gladwell’s “outlier” concerning education, he contends that the most important factor in education is that each individual child must have at an early age (pre-kindergarten) a loving person who reads to the child and conveys the importance of reading to that child.

A New Day

Nolan Respess and his assistant, “Dee Dock”, coached in tiny Pantego, NC, early in their careers.   The schools sports program was basketball and baseball.   That’s it.   Except for the principal’s news, fueled by school consolidation.

“Gentlemen we’re adding football.   Not only that, you two are the coaches.”

Nolan said neither he or “Dee Dock” knew much football, but there they were on opening Friday night.

First play!

On the kickoff return one of their new kids got “cold cocked!”   Unconscious right at their feet.   The kid finally “blind staggered” to his feet, barely awake.   Coach Re spess’ first substitute was instructed to “Take his place.”   The kid ran over to where the other kid had been stretched out and laid down.

Hmm, we’ve got some coaching to do.   Later when he tried to find the same kid, another teammate said, “Coach, he is over there, pointing to the concession stand. The “sub” was calmly eating a hot dog through his facemask.

Coach Respess:  “Son, did they give you a hot dog?”  “No, Coach, I bought it.”
“You had money in your uniform?”
“I hid it in my shoes, I knew I’d get hungry.”