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Thursday May 26th

‘Under attack’: How Larry Fedora came in conflict with overwhelming mental health data

<p>Larry Fedora conducting a press conference at the 2018 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte.</p>
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Larry Fedora conducting a press conference at the 2018 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte.

On Wednesday, North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said that the game of college football is “under attack.”

“I think the game is safer right now than it’s ever been in the history of the game,” he said at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s annual ACC Football Kickoff media event. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to eliminate all injuries. It’s just not possible.”

He continued: “I believe the game is under attack right now. I really do. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose what the game is all about.”

In a day where the head coach of the Tar Heel football team was expected to fly under the radar — and reiterate his “stick-to-the-plan” refrain in response to how he’ll improve upon his last-placed coastal division finish in 2017 — Fedora made national headlines.

And these headlines raised all sorts of questions.

‘No truth to them at all’

Fedora’s claim that the integrity of football is currently under siege was effectively a response to the widespread criticism that the sport of football is a cause for several serious mental health disorders — including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as C.T.E.

According to a 2017 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, C.T.E. was discovered in 177 of the 202 deceased American football players whose families offered their brains for examination across all levels of play. The same study concluded that among 84 participants with severe C.T.E., 80 had symptoms of cognitive disability and 71 had signs of dementia.

This conversation isn’t completely foreign to the UNC football program, of course. Just after the beginning of fall camp last year, Tar Heel offensive guard Khaliel Rodgers retired from the game of football, explaining that his “health comes first” in a Facebook message. Many linked Rodgers’ spontaneous and surprising retirement at the time to the aforementioned 2017 C.T.E. study.

On Wednesday, though, Fedora faced off with this hard truth supported by overwhelming evidence — and he went viral for it.

Fedora explained that he ultimately fears the reality that’s starting to take shape: Parents, as well as other football patrons and participants, are beginning to get “turned off” to the “violent” sport of football because of the emergence of certain mental health evidence and its data-driven connectedness to football. 

Fedora said that some of the studies that people are getting influenced by “have no truth to them at all.”

“I’m not sure that anything is proven that football itself causes (C.T.E.),” Fedora said. “My understanding is that repeated blows to the head cause it, so I’m assuming that every sport we have, football included, could be a problem with that.”

When asked who he thought was attacking the game specifically, Fedora didn’t single out a specific entity.

“I blame a groundswell of data that is tweaked one way or the other,” he said. “I can take the data and make it look one way, and you can take the data and make it look another way. And whoever is presenting it is the one who gets the say.”

‘It depends on the study’

Fedora offered one concrete way in which these studies are threatening to the future of football: the decline in youth participation. After all, the more wary parents are getting about putting their children in pads, the less the sport can grow. 

“That’s what I’m talking about when I’m worrying about the future,” Fedora said. “They say from the youth leagues and stuff that there is a dropoff in participation, and that’s been happening the past couple of years. If you’re involved in the game of football, you got to worry about that.”

Last year, the Chicago Tribune published a story that took a look at a few youth football programs and their overall declines in participation. One particular league — which hosts teams from nearly 50 towns — saw approximately 2,500 fewer kids sign up for the league than a decade ago.

The head coach also opened discussion to the new kickoff return rule that will be implemented at the start of the 2018 season. The rule will make it so the receiving team can make a fair catch inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback — a development that fundamentally changes a significant part of special teams.

Fedora, who is entering his seventh year at the Tar Heel helm, tried to emphasize that “tweaking the game for a player’s safety” is “good for the game.” 

“Will we get to the point where we don’t have kickoffs in the game? That is a possibility,” Fedora said. “We changed the rule hoping that it would take away some of the impacts that could cause concussions and severe injuries on the kickoff return.”

Anthony Ratliff-Williams, arguably North Carolina’s most explosive player who recorded 895 yards and two touchdowns on kick returns last season, said he doesn’t think the rule will affect how he approaches the art of returning kickoffs; when the ball comes to him, like he often did last year, he will try to make something special happen.

That said, the junior wide receiver seemed to recognize and accept the rule's intent.

“I definitely have an understanding that the long-term effects from concussions are way worse than people perceive them,” he said.

Defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, Ratliff-Williams’ fellow junior teammate, agreed that awareness about the dangers of football is important.

“I think it's important as far as safety because C.T.E. and the repercussions from that are great,” Crawford said. “But at the same time, this is a game we picked because we love it. We know the dangers of it, and if you don't know at this point, then you need to be informed about it. 

“Just like anything else, it's a risk that we take day in and day out. With that being said, I think there are ways to make the game safer without taking the rugged, competitive edge out of football."

When asked if Ratliff-Williams would let his son play football, he said he wouldn’t, “just because of what it entails on your body. If he wants to play football, I mean by all means, I’ll let him do it because he loves it. 

“It wouldn’t be the first thing I’d put in his hands as a sport.”

‘If it gets to that point, our country goes down too’

Initially, Fedora’s comments came in a sort of stream of consciousness, him first articulating his love for football — a sport he’s been acquainted with as a player since his adolescence and as a head coach since 2008 — and then him building up to why the integrity of football is so closely linked to the greatness of America.

“Are there some things that are negative about the game? There is no doubt about that,” he said. “But again, as you look, I can tell you just in my lifetime when I played the game early on, there is a huge difference in the way athletes play the game and the way athletes are taken care of.

“I fear that the game will get pushed so far to one extreme that you won’t recognize the game 10 years from now. And I do believe, if it gets to that point, that our country goes down too.”

In the same line of questioning, Fedora told a story about a meeting he had with a three-star general he met with a few years ago. 

“I had a question for him,” Fedora said. “I asked him, ‘What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to ever other military in the world?’ He (responded), ‘That’s easy; we’re the only football-playing nation in the world. Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their lives.'”

North Carolina football fans — those who saw the injury-plagued, close-but-not-quite 2017 Tar Heel squad limp through its worst season in the Fedora era last year — thought they knew what to expect from their head coach in the first media event prior to the 2017-18 football season.

But on Wednesday, Fedora deviated from his script. And made a stir that no one saw coming.

@alexzietlow05

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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