|Wednesday, August 1
Updated: August 2, 10:59 AM ET
Mourn Stringer, then get the answers
By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com
Korey Stringer is dead, and the first instinct is to feel like someone has punched you in the stomach.
The second is to wonder what he might have done to put himself in danger. This is a cynical reaction, but we are a suspicious lot, and when young athletes die, too often we look to the victim's own behavior for a cause. In Stringer's case, weight issues, an incredibly hot day and his own inner drive to show his teammates he could soldier on in the face of discomfort seem to be the causes.
Eventually, though, we will have to confront the notion that football training camps, whether they be high school, college or professional, still have a bit too much of the medieval about them.
It is generally agreed that Dennis Green is not an egregious offender in the area of training camp abuse. He is known, in fact, as a "players' coach," one who learned under Bill Walsh, among others, that driving men beyond their endurance in July is not only cruel but unnecessary.
But one wonders, not just because of Stringer's death but also nearly 20 deaths of high school and college football players due to heat-related causes, if there aren't changes that should be made to make training camp less like the training camp of Lombardi's day.
First, a preface. Football is at its heart a bestial game, made all the more hazardous by technological and medical advances that make men bigger, stronger, faster and better armored than many World War I-vintage tanks. The game's inherent cruelties cannot be removed without the game being something other than football as we know it.
We will now pause while you argue among yourselves whether or not this is a good thing.
But it seems clear that on 100-degree days with stifling humidity, in which many teams practice during the summer, are a principal culprit. Moving practices to the evening seems the only logical response to this, even though players tend to guard their evenings with religious fervor.
More troublesome are players' sizes, which some physiologists believe are reaching illogical dimensions given the demands of the sport. Stringer fought weight issues throughout his college and pro career, but the truth is that weight is a vital component in line play. Tony Siragusa of Baltimore looks like his muscles are in his other uniform, but nobody can question his effectiveness as a defensive tackle.
Will players become smaller as a result of this? Not likely. Will physical exams become even more precise to detect potential health issues? They are already at the outer edge of technology now, but there is always another advance to be made.
Can training camps become less grueling? Of course they can, but that would require that coaches' comfort levels can be lowered, and coaches are notorious control freaks. They run their teams and organizations as private fiefdoms, some more military than others but all with the essential inflexibility that comes with the responsibility of leading others.
In the meantime, Korey Stringer is dead. A young, earnest, happy man who enjoyed his life, family and friends, a victim of football's demands, his own frailties and the harshness of misfortune. We do not know more than that now; an autopsy may provide additional information about Stringer's condition at the time of his death.
But that's not for today. There may be things to learn here for the long run, but for now, there is nothing to be done but to mourn the passing of a man who did his best without trying to harm others. The shock of his death may be somehow ameliorated by the fact that, by all accounts, he was a good and decent man. Some people live three times as long without mastering that elemental task.
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com