You may have heard the news earlier this week that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is retiring at the young age of 24 due to concerns for his health.
Borland is a former Wisconsin Badger who was recruited by Bret Bielema and played for him for four seasons until Bielema came to Arkansas. Because of that connection with Bielema, and because Bielema made quite a name for himself last year in the whole player safety discussion, reporters asked Bielema to comment on the situation and about player safety.
We don't know exactly how the questions were asked, but Bielema is quoted in this Sporting News story with more comments about player safety and style of play. These are the only Bielema quotes in the piece:
"I’m going to tread lightly," Bielema says, knowing full well the recent history of a man and his crusade, and how he has been mocked for it since.
"We have an obligation to do what’s right," he says, his voice getting stronger. "I can’t understand how some guys can’t see that."
"We have to protect student athletes to extremes we never thought of before," Bielema told Sporting News on Tuesday. "I just read a study that said players in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense play the equivalent of five more games than those that don’t. That’s an incredible number. Our awareness as a whole has to increase."
"I know how much the game means to Chris," Bielema said. "For him to decide he has had enough, it’s a very sad situation."
"I can’t imagine the thought process he had to go through to get to where he was," Bielema said. "it's not about what we want for the game, it's about what the game needs."
I don't know that it's fair to suggest that Bielema is using Borland to prop up his philosophy of the hurry-up offense. This is not the same thing as the "death certificates" statement from last year. I think a reporter used Borland's situation to ask Bielema about player safety and probably also asked about his stance on pace of play.
I wrote at length last year how I think Bielema truly feels about the hurry-up offense and why I think it sincerely feels "wrong" to him. And I do think there's a legitimate case to be made that more plays = more fatigue = more injuries. HUNH proponents say there hasn't been a study to back that up, but it hasn't been disproven either. As long as coaches aren't required to disclose injuries (many of them and their severity are kept hidden from the public) I don't know how it could be proven one way or the other.
It should also be noted that Borland played at Wisconsin under Bielema so playing in a HUNH system was hardly a daily occurance. It only happened whenever the Badgers played against a HUNH team, and in the Big Ten that was hardly a weekly routine. And after just playing one year for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, it's hard to make the case that hurry-up offenses are what has led Borland to this situation, and - most importantly - I don't feel Bielema is making that connection, either.
That being said, when Bielema is asked to give his opinion on hurry-up offenses and player safety, I don't expect his answer to change any time soon. It's not an unfair debate to have. HUNH coaches are obviously strongly opposed to Bielema. But at some point it feels like political operative in party X believes political candidate from party X destroyed political candidate from party Y in a debate, but operative from party Y strongly disagrees.
It's not as though Bielema is decrying the HUNH they attempting to run it on his own. He's drawn his line in the sand. He was the coach getting praise last fall for a big powerful offensive line and promoting fat guy touchdowns and beating his opponents down instead of trying to run around them. There's a definite cave man appeal to that style when it works. Of course, the flip side is it opens him up to criticism when playing more physical can also lead to fatigue and injuries, or when he chooses to leave his clearly hurting quarterback in a game in the fourth quarter, making him more vulnerable to defenses.
Regardless, I don't think Bielema is wrong to make certain points about this debate if people want to ask him about it. He crossed a line last year but the overarching point is still one worth discussing, and I think he did a better job of addressing it in that interview.
Plus, he gets a little more credibility for winning three of his last four games pretty decisively, which shows his own system is working and he's not just desperately trying to give his own team a better chance at winning. Ole Miss runs a version of the hurry-up system, and Bielema's team still beat them 30-0.