Dave Hannigan: Misguided machismo in school of hard-knock training
American sport is in a toxic cycle of win at all costs – even if the cost is a player’s life
University of Maryland player Jordan McNair, who died in June after collapsing during a training session. Photograph: Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images
Joshua Mileto was 16 years old. He stood five-foot-six and weighed 9½ stone when he turned up for Sachem East High School’s pre-season training. During a drill in which he and four team-mates carried a 10ft-long, 400lb log above their heads while running a relay race, he was struck by the falling wood and died. Afterwards, there was predictable hand-wringing about the excessive intensity of grid-iron culture, especially when it emerged the log-running routine was a staple of the physical tests used to weed out the weaker recruits at Navy Seal boot camp. To prepare those young men for, eh, war.
Almost exactly one year on from Mileto’s death, another high school varsity squad were going through their paces just a few miles away from Sachem East on Long Island. Every stop by the defence, every touchdown by the offence, was celebrated excessively, as teenage boys strutted their stuff, rubbing each fresh triumph in their classmates’ faces. The atmosphere was good-humoured and jovial, the almost giddy tone of adolescents thrilled to be back on a field for the new season. At the finish, the coach called them together for a pro forma speech about the importance of hard work and training. So far, so normal.
Then, suddenly, he veered off script. For a couple of minutes, he talked about the injured players who weren’t there that glorious August morning. The boys were told, in no uncertain terms, they were to put peer pressure on those lads to get them back on the field, to get them training through the pain. Why? Because, apparently, that’s how great teams are made. This clipboard-wielding troglodyte wanted these teenagers to know that everybody was expected to play hurt and sitting down with a physical ailment was somehow weak, wrong and disloyal to their team-mates. “Suck it up!” is quite the life lesson to be imparting in a sport where concussion is such a serious issue.
This depressing soliloquy was all the more alarming because one of the more horrific sports stories of the American summer has been the case of Jordan McNair. A 19-year-old offensive lineman at the University of Maryland, McNair died from heat exhaustion suffered during an off-season conditioning session. The subsequent investigation into his death revealed what has been described as a “toxic culture” around the grid-iron team, with coaches routinely verbally abusing players, forcing them to insane physical extremes and questioning their masculinity if they didn’t comply.
The most damning allegation, supported by evidence, indicates that McNair might have survived if the coaches had taken his breakdown more seriously, more quickly. If they had acted more like caring human beings rather than cardboard cut-out coaching martinets. The story would be more shocking if it wasn’t so familiar. Since 2000, 27 college football players have died in training. Not in games where they routinely get their heads bashed in. But in training. Why? Well, some would argue it’s down to the repulsive strain of excessive machismo coursing through too much of American sport, in general, and grid-iron, in particular.
During Meyer’s time at the University of Florida one player was pushed so hard in the weights room that his quads exploded
“Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” is a slogan beloved of high school and college coaches who have brainwashed generations of impressionable kids into believing that borderline abusive treatment and training beyond the point of suffering is character-building and crucial to their athletic development. All across the US for the past few weeks, teenage boys and girls in all sports are turning up at school for two-a-days, brutal early morning and early evening training sessions in sapping heat, work-outs that often leave them spending the rest of the day in bed. All the while being force-fed mantras such as, “Quitters never win, winners never quit!”
The right stuff
Some of these coaches have boasted to me that rather than work on technical skills or tactical approaches during this extended time with their players, they prefer to run them into the ground so that the “weaker” kids are inclined to drop out and those who remain are made of the right stuff. Lemming-like parents watch the annual cull approvingly. The whole approach is myopic, wrong-headed and, unfortunately, just considered part of the fabric of sport in these parts. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” – as yet another one of their insufferable locker-room slogans declares.
All of this explains the curious and ongoing deification of dinosaur coaches like the “great” Bobby Knight (the basketball maven who used to place sanitary towels in the lockers of players who weren’t manning up) and Urban Meyer. He is one of the most celebrated coaches in college football history, but it’s recently been reported that during Meyer’s time at the University of Florida one player was pushed so hard in the weights room that his quads exploded. Another individual testified to being forced to carry a 45lb plate over his head while battling a shoulder infection that required immediate hospitalisation.
Having full bottles of Gatorade hurled across the locker room at your head was also considered a normal part of playing for this beloved icon. Yet, everybody pretended to be shocked and appalled when Meyer was recently placed on administrative leave from his current $7.6 million gig with Ohio State University for lying about what he knew regarding repeated domestic abuse charges against one of his long-term assistant coaches.
Didn’t they know? Quitters never win. Winners never act anything less than so macho.