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UNC Football: Larry Fedora has some controversial opinions on football and America

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In Wednesday’s ACC Football Kickoff, the UNC head coach shared some thoughts about where football is headed.

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days
Hasn’t aged a day.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably heard by now, but in case this article is somehow the first thing you’ve seen about #SportsTwitter’s newest nugget, here’s a primer: Larry Fedora made some comments at today’s ACC Football Kickoff media day that... haven’t exactly been popular. Here they are, in Twitter-sized nuggets:

(For more detail, check out this Inside Carolina article, but I don’t think the Tweets are a misrepresentation of Fedora’s comments.)

We’ve got an article about the CTE issue up already, courtesy of my co-writer Chad Floyd, so go check that out. I think it suffices on my end to say that it’s not good, and while there are some issues with self-selection in this oft-quoted study, going from that to “you can make data say anything you want it to, and there’s no proof that football causes CTE” is a reckless logical leap that has to call into question how much Fedora cares about his players’ lives after they leave his team.

The other stuff, while not nearly as problematic, is emblematic of the same machismo-stained #footballguys mindset that is polluting the sport at the moment, so I think it’s worthy of address as well. It’s important to note here that it’s a virtual guarantee that Fedora isn’t the only coach in the country who thinks like this. Hell, he’s probably part of a majority. But this kind of talk is usually kept to football safe spaces, like locker rooms, coaching clinics, and the like. Fedora has made the move to put it out in public, and it will be telling if/when other coaches across the country are asked about his sentiments. It’s very likely going to amount to nothing. But given what we’re already seeing of people’s reactions to Fedora, imagine what might happen nationwide if a few more high-profile coaches echo his sentiments.

The more conventional take of the two is that football is tied to America like no other sport, and that if football goes down, the country will follow. Basically, this is an extension of the #sticktosports ethos, another way of saying that sports are an apolitical, fundamentally American space where people bond across the metaphorical aisle over mutual fandom and love for the games. Without them as something to bond over, we’ll collapse in Civil War, Part 2. It’s only natural that, as a football coach, Fedora focuses this idea on football, just as I’m sure a baseball coach with the same mindset would do for “America’s Pastime.”

While that’s usually the meaning behind this argument, and one that I’m sure is buried underneath the veneer Fedora presented to the media, the coach’s explanation goes in a different direction. In case you can’t watch the video embedded above, here’s the money quote:

The lessons that you learn in the game of football relate to everything that’s going to happen for the rest of your life. And if we stop learning those lessons, we’re going to struggle.

Which, while less politically charged than the first interpretation, isn’t much more defensible. For the #sticktosports crowd, the easy response is that sports are always political, have in fact provided a battleground for many of our foremost domestic political issues, and that football right now is in the thick of a major, explicitly political reckoning. For this answer from Fedora, the response is this: What makes football different from other team sports as a teaching tool? It’s been thought forever, and backed up by several studies, that playing sports in high school correlates to workforce success. There are myriad reasons for this, ranging from the simple and wholesome (playing on a team helps people work collaboratively!) to the more nefarious (former sports players hire other former sports players because they’re “cool”) and not many are well-understood. But football specifically? Is there value in the only team sport in which it’s possible for one of the sport’s worst teams to have one of the its best players? This aspect makes football the ultimate team sport and a uniquely thrilling viewing experience, but in the real world, usually being in a group with one of your field’s elites gives you a decided advantage. Besides that, it’s just another team sport. And there are a ton of those in which head-to-head collisions aren’t prescribed on an every-play basis.

It’s a similar story for the other part of this development. Part of Fedora’s pitch for football being the fabric of America is its inextricable tie to the American military. The football -> ROTC pipeline flows very strongly in high schools and colleges across the country, football is littered with military terms (“blitz” is the most obvious, but there’s also “the trenches,” various gun-related metaphors for quarterbacks’ arms, etc). The NFL is dealing with a controversy that has only become controversy due to a perceived disrespect towards the military. The military pays the NFL to advertise it during games. So the kind of mutual respect that leads people in either field to say something like “Our military is great because we play football” is pretty easy to understand.

It is, however, something you don’t say in any sort of national spotlight, because it is a spectacularly insulated take. It ignores all context, such as that the United States spends more on defense than the countries in 2nd through 15th place combined (and is 3rd in per capita spending) and that the United States is among the world’s most populous countries. And, I have to ask again, what makes football special in this regard? Is it the contact? Because plenty of countries play full-contact sports, such as rugby and combat sports like wrestling, boxing, and martial arts. Is it the war-themed strategy? Because football shares that with chess. I can only conclude that this is a jingoistic celebration of American “toughness,” which... I mean, that’s just wrong.

At the end of the day, let’s remember exactly what these comments reflect, which is a man who knows that his job is in danger, not from his employer but from the public. Plays to patriotism are a cheap and easy way to try and get people excited about football, something Fedora apparently thinks is lacking. That’s why it’s Fedora under the spotlight right now: Not because he’s unique in thinking what he thinks, but because he believes that something he loves might not exist for much longer. Remember Bruce Arians?

But they’re also a reflection of a toxic aspect of football culture: the aspect that claims that you can only understand the sport and its value if you’ve played it and thus keeps a host of brilliant minds and writers (particularly women and non-black people of color) out of football-related spaces, the aspect that complains about the game not being what it used to be just because the minds analyzing the game have gotten smarter, the aspect that thinks “having no red flags is a red flag” when scouting a player, the aspect that creates a perception, fair or not, that football culture is about half a century behind the rest of America. Fedora, with his embrace of a spread offense, his love of the passing game, and his employment at UNC, was well positioned to push back against this mindset and try and bring football into the 21st century. Instead, with these comments, he’s put himself right in the thick of the same old, outdated philosophy. Maybe, hopefully, with the public reacting the way they are due to nothing else going on in sports, he’ll learn something from this.