COMMENTARY

Deadly football drills should be outlawed

Cause of death: Mat drills.

That's what the autopsy report should have said Friday.

It should have said, "Ereck Plancher, just 19 years old, literally worked himself to death doing a draconian football drill that should be outlawed in 21st-century America."

The final autopsy report released Friday was supposed to bring blessed closure on the tragic death of Plancher, the UCF freshman football player, but instead it just brought more controversy and questions.

Did UCF follow national guidelines and properly monitor Plancher, whom the autopsy found had a medical condition -- sickle-cell trait -- that put him at risk for sudden death under physical stress?

And why did UCF officials, after leading the public to believe after all these weeks and months that Plancher was a normal, healthy college football player, wait until after the autopsy report to suddenly reveal they knew all along he had a medical condition that has contributed to the death of 10 athletes over the last seven years?

And the most troubling question of all: Why is Ereck Plancher and probably every other college football player in this country put in such physically stressful situations that their bodies and organs can literally shut down?

I will spare you the medical and technical autopsy explanation of Plancher's death and get right to the translation: His body was pushed to a point where his liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys and, finally, his heart stopped working.

I've asked it before and I'll keep asking it: Why is it that four college football players in this state have died this decade and none of them died during a game but all died during preseason conditioning drills? I'll tell you why. Because college coaches, with their archaic puke drills, are literally running these guys into the grave.

It's like former Auburn head coach Terry Bowden, who now lives in Orlando, recently wrote in a column for Yahoo.com: "Maybe these tragic deaths are not inevitable. Maybe it's time to start asking ourselves different questions. Are we demanding much more from these athletes than is required to safely play? . . . We are not seeing these types of unexpected deaths during the regular season. . . . Perhaps it's because we are getting our kids ready to play football then, and not getting them ready for mortal combat."

Bowden uses the combat analogy for good reason -- because many college football coaches like UCF's George O'Leary are militaristic men who believe football is analogous with war. They run practices like boot camps and concoct these grueling mat drills as if they are trying to simulate the invasion of Normandy.

The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) in 2007 called for athletes with sickle-cell trait to be given special accommodations when symptoms arise. If there is muscle cramping, pain, swelling, weakness, inability to "catch breath" or fatigue, the athlete is supposed to discontinue training immediately.

Did that happen at UCF? You be the judge:

UCF players told the Senti nel in April that Plancher was visibly struggling, gasping for breath and staggering before he collapsed on the day of his death. The players said coaches screamed at Plancher to get up after he fell down during the workout and that O'Leary cussed at Plancher for lack of effort -- an accusation O'Leary disputes. O'Leary did, however, admit to expressing dissatisfaction and telling Plancher he was "better than that."

Does that sound to you like a player who was being told to discontinue training immediately?

Who knows how O'Leary or any other college coach conducts private practices behind locked gates, but do you really believe when drills are being conducted that there is a special dispensation area for "players with sickle-cell trait"? Isn't it much more likely that everybody is lumped together and treated the same -- like sled dogs being driven to win the Iditarod?

O'Leary is probably not much different than most other college coaches except for one thing -- one of his players died. And when an athlete dies in any sport, scrutiny follows and, hopefully, so does enlightenment.

When Dale Earnhardt died, NASCAR joined the 21st century and started making its cars and tracks safer. Maybe college football should do the same in the wake of Ereck Plancher's tragic death.

Where do you draw the line when training teenagers to play the "game" of college football?

Well short of them puking and fainting.

Way short of them dying.


Mike Bianchi's Open Mike blog can be read at OrlandoSentinel.com/openmike, and he can be reached at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com.

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