BOULDER, Colo. — The University of Colorado hired a new football coach in December and, as coaches are wont to do, he talked tough.
“Our team, we will be physical,” coach Mel Tucker said at his introductory news conference. “My dad always told me the name of the game is hit, hit, H-I-T. There is always a place on the field for someone who will hit.”
He was preaching that old-style pigskin religion. Unfortunately, Tucker, who came from the University of Georgia, runs a football program that has seen at least half a dozen former players — including several who played in the NFL — kill themselves. Other former players are alive but afflicted by severe post-concussion problems.
Two university regents, dissenters from the Church of Hit, Hit and Hit, read Tucker’s remarks and shook their heads.
A few days later, these heretics voted against his five-year, $14.75 million contract. They could not block the contract, but another cannon had been fired in the football concussion wars.
Linda Shoemaker, one of the regents, described her pilgrimage from casual fandom to casting a vote against football.
“I really thought at first that we could play football safely with better rules and better equipment; I drank the Kool-Aid,” she told me. “I can’t go there anymore. I don’t believe it can be played safely anymore. I want these young men to leave CU with minds that have been strengthened, not damaged.”
The nation’s universities face a ticklish problem known as morality. These institutions were founded with the purpose of developing and educating young minds. It is difficult to square that mission with the fate of those like running back Rashaan Salaam, who ran so beautifully for Colorado and then as a pro, and like Drew Wahlroos, a fearless, rampaging Colorado linebacker. Both men suffered emotional and cognitive problems that friends and family and even university officials related to thousands of hits taken over the course of their careers. Each killed himself.
There are those like Ryan Miller, an intelligent and introspective giant of a young man and a former stalwart offensive lineman for Colorado who at age 29 suffers migraines and the shakes and once in a while gets into his car and has to think many minutes before recalling where he intended to go.
I came to Boulder because of these outspoken regents and because of Bob Carmichael, a long-ago player at Colorado, who has taken upon himself the role of moral goad and pushed others to speak out. “I try to tell players that risking your future when you are in your early 20s is a stupid concept that many players, myself included, regret,” Carmichael said.
Thanks to these three, the University of Colorado has come closer than most institutions to wrestling with an urgent question: Is running a college football program unconscionable?
Miguel Rueda, the associate athletic director for health and performance, noted that the staff trains freshman football players to speak up if injured. “We go over the risk of injury because there is a tie to mental health from any injury,” Rueda said. “They are encouraged to understand their part in the injury process.”
I sought the counsel of Brian Cabral on the question of better training. He was a magnificent linebacker at Colorado and played nine years in the NFL, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears. Then he returned to Colorado and became a linebacker coach.
Cabral loves the band-of-brothers aspect of football, and yet he cannot dodge the shadows. He knows too much, and several times during our conversation he paused, choked up.
“I hate to say this, but I taught players what I was taught,” he said.
And what was that technique? “Put your helmet right in the guy’s jaw and drive up through his throat to his head,” he said. “I regret it, I really do.”
I noted that officials said better technique might offer a sort of salvation. He nodded yes, and then quickly shook his head. “They try to take the head out of tackling, but come on,” he said. “We bang heads and guys get concussions.”
Shoemaker is a former journalist and now a grandmother, and several times she has walked down to the football field and just listened. “It’s frightening to hear the hits,” she said. “We have physicians there, but they all work for the university and they are very much in favor of football.
“Hard hits lead to head trauma, and that makes lives more brutal. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t think the game can be played safely.”
If I cast my dice, I’d roll in the direction of Shoemaker’s bottom line.