Bret Bielema knows what plays in public, or at least he thinks he does.
The Arkansas coach, a proponent of big-boy, straight-ahead football, knows that "player safety" has become the "support our troops" of the new football universe.
It's an unassailable, all-purpose argument-stopper, the line that plays in the halls of academia and in the ears of every mom of an 18-year-old recruit. It doesn't matter what you think about competitive balance or national rankings or the number of gears in Jadaveon Clowney's motor; the one thing we can all agree on is the importance of player safety in this age of Increased Awareness.
The conversation over a proposed NCAA rule that would effectively slow down the hurry-up offense has ballooned into a full-on controversy, one so big and so geographically specific it threatens to keep Paul Finebaum swimming in apoplectic callers until the first SEC team kicks off this fall.
The two major players -- or at least the public faces -- of the rule change that would keep offenses from snapping the ball in the first 10 seconds of the play clock for 56 of the game's 60 minutes are Bielema and Nick Saban. But it has been Bielema who has taken the speaking role on the subject, pronouncing that the rule is not intended to save his style of play, but instead to save lives.
Coaches such as Washington State's Mike Leach and Arizona's Rich Rodriguez question the science of Bielema's contention. When asked to defend his position that slowing down Auburn, Texas A&M or Oregon was a humanitarian issue, Bielema used the case of Ted Agu, a Cal player who collapsed and died after a training run on Feb. 7.
Bielema furthered his tortured, straw-man reasoning by invoking athletes with sickle cell trait. Bielema, who apparently doubles as a long-distance coroner, ascribed Agu's death to sickle cell trait even though nobody else has declared it to be a factor in his death. (An official cause of death has yet to be determined in the case.)
The last two college football players whose deaths were linked to strenuous activity and sickle cell trait died in 2008 (Central Florida's Ereck Plancher) and 2001 (Florida State's Devaughn Darling). Both of those deaths, like Agu's, occurred during an offseason workout, which means none of the three had anything to do with defending a hurry-up offense.
The idea of using a young man's death as a trump card to defend an unconnected rule change is abhorrent, and the lack of documentation to support the thesis is both regrettable and expected, but neither represents the biggest problem with the argument.
Of all the player safety concerns in college football (rote disclaimer: We are by no means minimizing safety concerns) the hurry-up offense is far down the list. In fact, you could argue the opposite of Bielema and Saban's point: The hurry-up offense could very well be an agent of positive change. If it forces more coaches (like our two national crossing guards) to condition their players more thoroughly, it could actually serve to improve player safety.
Size is an under-reported issue at the highest levels of football. We have come to accept the increased size of linemen as a natural offshoot of nutrition and schemes and need. The escalation over the past 30 years, from 260-pound linemen to 340-pound linemen, is a form of madness. (Bielema's Arkansas team had eight players 325 pounds or heavier last season.)
If you see these young men only in uniform, within the context of the sport, you lose perspective on just how big they are. But they will someday live outside the context of the sport, where that size is no longer an advantage. A Terrence Cody body is a benefit to its owner on the football field, and a few other places, but having one poses significant health risks. And that is true for right now, and it's frighteningly true for later in life.
If the pace of football at all levels accelerated to the point where nobody who weighs more than 310 or 315 pounds could keep up, players would be far healthier and -- yes -- safer than they are right now. There would be fewer health complications down the road, for sure, since most players who are forced to weigh 330 pounds for their jobs or their scholarships have difficulty returning their bodies to a healthy weight after they're finished playing.
At its core, what Bielema and Saban are fighting for is heft and how it works within their respective programs. They're fighting for the sanctity of a system that values young men whose bodies are culturally mandated to be morbidly obese for the immediate, short-term benefit of themselves, their universities and their coaches.
Improved player safety -- true improved player safety -- might mean implementing programs that make sure young men don't gain 50 pounds in six months. It might mean conditioning a team to make sure there are fewer 350-pound guys sucking wind as they try to get off the field, which might create a world with fewer ex-players developing Type II diabetes in their early 40s.
So their argument is purely tactical, and that's the most distasteful part.
Clearly, Alabama and Arkansas have trouble dealing with the quick-paced offenses that have become more common and successful in the SEC and beyond. The backbone of Alabama's defense is comprised of two of those clinically obese interior lineman backed by remarkably athletic linebackers. And the argument against the hurry-up, spread offense is simply an argument to preserve the viability of a system that is being threatened by innovation, not by health risks.