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An unhealthy sport

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I took my shots at Korey Stringer's weight. I wrote clever lines about the Vikings improving their camp by installing a speed bump at the training table and offered warnings about the risks of getting behind -- or in front of -- him on All-U-Can-Eat night at the Sizzler.

Korey Stringer
Korey Stringer tries to catch his breath during Monday afternoon's practice at Vikings training camp.
The lines aren't funny anymore.

The deaths of Stringer and the University of Florida's Eraste Autin are incredibly sad. Not just because two young men were struck down in their youth, but because the deaths seem so stupid, pointless and preventable.

Unfortunately, they are neither the first players to die from heat exhaustion nor will they be the last. Eighteen high school and college players have died from heat exhaustion just since 1995, according to a North Carolina study. Stringer, however, is the first player to die of such causes in the NFL during that time.

That's somewhat surprising, considering how overweight the linemen can be and what a demeaning, draining process training camp is. The fattened players are separated from their families, stuffed inside sterile dormitories and forced to practice twice a day in helmet and pads in oppressive heat until they puke.

It doesn't sound entirely healthy, but then, we're not talking about the healthiest of sports.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called for all 31 NFL teams to review their training camp policies in the wake of Stringer's death. They need to do more than review. They need to take the following measures.

1. Cut the exhibition season in half
There is one reason and one reason only for four exhibition games. Money.

Do teams need four exhibition games to sort out their roster? No. Except for looking at a borderline player or two, teams spend their final games praying no one gets hurt. Do fans want four exhibition games? No. The only reason they buy tickets to them at all is that greedy owners require their purchase as part of the season-ticket package.

So cut the number of games to two. That frees up time in the training camp to give players days off, relax practice schedules and more importantly, allow teams to ...

2. Shorten training camp
In this age of year-round conditioning, when even the ballboy has a personal trainer, it doesn't take six weeks to get into shape. And when the offseason is virtually one long minicamp, it certainly doesn't take six weeks for an offense or defense to gel. Four weeks is plenty, even if you provide needed days off for players.

3. Watch the Weather Channel
Stringer's death proves the danger of practicing in extreme heat. When it gets as unbearable as it did Tuesday, it's time to leave the field and head to an air-conditioned lecture hall to review the playbook for the afternoon. Practice at night if you have to, but don't subject players to two-a-days when the heat index soars above 100.

4. End the militarism and machismo
Kelci, Kodie & Korey Stringer
Korey Stringer's preventable death leaves Kelci, left, and Kodie without a husband and father.
Stringer vomited several times Monday and needed a cart to leave the field. Yet he was back out there again the next day and didn't ask for help from a trainer until after practice because he felt the need to prove himself.

That's very sad and very typical. More than any other sport, football has a soldier attitude. Say you're thirsty after burning off 2,000 calories in 95-degree heat and you're looked upon as a weakling. It wasn't that long ago that coaches withheld water from players to "toughen them up."

Everyone buys into this gladiator nonsense, from the coaches and players to the media and fans. Bear Bryant was glorified for his infamous training camp when he coached at Texas A&M.

Enough of that. They're preparing to play a game, not storm the beaches of Normandy. Encourage players to take breaks when needed. Make it acceptable to leave the field for a rest long before they require paramedics. Remember, vomiting is the body's way of saying it's had enough.

These measures are not some knee-jerk overreaction to Stringer's death. They are simply logical, obvious moves that should have been made long ago.

Will Stringer's death be cause enough for a change? Maybe. Let's just hope it won't take something the owners dread even more. A lawsuit.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for

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