CHARLOTTE — It started with a question about rule changes and the greater emphasis being placed on player safety in football these days.
And Larry Fedora took off from there.
Before he was through, the North Carolina coach had taken exception to data that links the sport to the degenerative brain disease known as CTE, expressed concern over the game becoming too soft and even suggested that the future prosperity of our country is directly related to the way in which football is played.
“I believe the game is under attack right now. I really do,” Fedora said during an extraordinary 45-minute interview session at the ACC’s annual Football Kickoff media event Wednesday. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose what the game is all about.”
Fedora’s commentary began when he was asked about changes designed to reduce the number of kickoff returns, which have proven to be among the most dangerous plays in football.
Although he said he’s as concerned as anyone about protecting the athletes that play the game, a natural reaction considering his Tar Heels had 17 players listed at “out for the year” by the end of last season, he worried that safety measures might be taken too far because of recent negative publicity.
In doing so, Fedora disputed research — including studies conducted by UNC’s own Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz — that has connected concussions suffered by those playing football to the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that has led to depression and even suicide by those who suffer from it.
“I don’t think that it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE. But that’s been put out there,” Fedora said. “We don’t really know yet. Are there the chances for concussions in the game of football? When you have two people or multiple people running into each other, there’s is a chance of concussion. But I’m going to say that the game is safer than it’s ever been.”
Fedora said that no matter how hard the rules makers try, it’s impossible to eliminate injuries from football and that those who play the game understand and accept the risk that comes along with it.
He added that while there is certain data that suggests a link between football concussions and CTE, any data can be “tweaked” to prove any point of view. He suggested that detractors of his sport are using CTE as an excuse to make it less physical and turn it into “touch football.”
“I fear that the game will get pushed so far to one extreme that you won’t recognize the game 10 years from now,” Fedora said. “That’s what I worry about. And I do believe that if it gets to that point, that our country goes down too.”
When asked how changes in football would affect the welfare of the entire nation, Fedora referred to a conversation he had with a military leader.
“A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general,” Fedora said. “I said, ‘What is it that makes our military superior to every other military in the world?’ And he was like, ‘That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.’ He said most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level. And the lessons they learned from that game is what makes us who we are.
“I think we will lose a lot as a nation. We will lose a lot because of what the game teaches.”
Fedora repeated his thoughts on the subject several times during the course of his availability as reporters in attendance got wind of his comments and arrived to hear them for themselves.
About two hours later, the seventh-year UNC coach called a group of reporters together for an impromptu session in which he attempted to clarify his earlier statements.
“I’m not sure that anything is proven that football itself causes it,” he said of CTE. “Now we do know, my understanding is repeated blows to the head cause it. So I’m assuming that every sport you have, football included, could be a problem with that. As long as you’ve got any kind of contact you can have that. That does not diminish the fact that the game is still safer than it’s ever been in the history of the game, because we continue to tweak the game and try to make it safer for the players.
“It was brought up about the kickoff return rule and will we get to a point to where we don’t have kickoffs in the game, that is a possibility,” he continued. “We changed the rule hoping it would take away some of the impacts that cause concussions and severe injuries on kickoff returns. At the end of the year, we will relook at this.”