Saturday, August 25, 2001

Death on the football field

        The issues are many, and they are complex. But the debate has been simplistic, and it has been shrill.

        Rashidi Wheeler's death was tragic, and it might have been preventable. Northwestern University's emergency procedures were plainly flawed when the asthmatic safety needed them Aug.3, and Wheeler might never have needed them if his football coaches were in compliance with NCAA rules regulating “voluntary” workouts.

        Northwestern is looking at lots of liability, probably many millions of dollars worth. A suit was filed Thursday on behalf of Wheeler's mother, Linda Will, seeking unspecified damages. The mother, her attorneys and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have
spent much of the last week on camera, spinning sympathy into outrage.

        Yet despite some of the more strident statements from the Wheeler camp — which have included calls for the firings of head coach Randy Walker and athletic director Rick Taylor and national investigations — there is not yet any evidence of evil at work here.

        There may have been negligence involved in Wheeler's death, perhaps even incompetence. But the evidence introduced thus far does not identify a clear villain or a convenient scapegoat except for football itself.

Practices are the same

        It's a tough game. Not everyone is up to it. What happened to Wheeler was an extreme example of things that transpire at football practices at every level every day in every state. In pushing themselves toward their physical limits, players sometimes fail to recognize stop signs.

        If they are ingesting banned dietary supplements, as Wheeler's toxicology report indicates, the risk factor rises.

        But football drills don't automatically end when a player collapses and ambulances are not always standing by. Whether Northwestern's standard procedures included all of the appropriate precautions is a valid question, but it is one that could be posed to virtually any coach in the country.

        The recent death of Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer has raised awareness of football's dangers, but it has not altered its fundamental ethic of natural selection.

        “If you don't come to football practice every day, you don't understand the whole mentality,” Miami University coach Terry Hoeppner said Friday. “Guys drop out, pull hamstrings, have trouble breathing. Obviously, these people who are crying "inhumane' have never been to a football practice.”

Stern leaders

        Hoeppner succeeded Walker in Oxford and has been quick to defend and commiserate with his former boss. Some coaches are more harsh than others, and Walker is a conditioning fanatic, but the profession is populated by men who much prefer to be thought of as stern than soft.

        “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Hoeppner said, invoking Henry David Thoreau. “The rest of us play football.”

        Hoeppner is not callous to the potential for casualties. In the wake of Wheeler's death, Miami has reviewed its procedures and resolved to install a telephone line at its practice field so emergency calls can be made without reliance on cellular connections.

        A wise man learns from tragedy. An alarmist simply looks for someone to blame.

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