We mentioned it earlier this week, but Bielema is still getting torched over his comments in a recent Sporting News story about newly retired 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, a former Wisconsin player under Bielema, and Bielema's infamous stance on player safety and the hurry-up no-huddle offenses.
Most of it is just hot air, stuff that's easy to dismiss as another hot take column easy to fill in the middle of the offseason. I was all set to let this one go as well until I read a line so absurd and coming from one of the biggest sports sites in the world that it must be addressed.
This column from ESPN goes so far as to include this line:
"Bielema is actively supporting an unhealthy lifestyle that will lead to premature death."
The line is in reference to Arkansas' possession of what they've widely promoted as the biggest offensive line in football, and a roster with 17 players over 300 pounds. Obviously, there's no denying that being over 300 pounds is generally considered to be extremely unhealthy. However, it's not as if Bielema actively encouraging players to become as big and fat as they possibly can. Sebastian Tretola has actually lost at least 40 pounds since arriving in Fayetteville, and he's hardly the only Razorback who's had to come in and lose weight in order to arrive in optimal playing shape. Dan Skipper is 6'10". Unless he wants to play offensive line with a body like Bobby Portis, he's going to be over 300 pounds. Go tell Denver Kirkland he's fat and unhealthy. They're not exactly eating cheeseburgers and cake everyday.
I get what the author is trying to do. He's making the point that while Bielema is preaching the player safety gospel, he's sticking to a talking point that ignores any changes he would have to be accountable for making. That's a valid point, and we've made note of ways Bielema's crusade at times appears hypocritical from some angles, although to be fair, Bielema has never said that the 10-second rule is the only change that should be made to improve player safety.
It's also disingenuous to suggest Bielema is tying Borland's retirement to Bielema's beliefs about the HUNH. As we've written, there is not one Bielema quote in that story connecting those two dots. It's not there. And why would he? Borland spent most of his career playing for Bielema. He only occasionally played against those types of offenses. It is true that the Sporting News story tried to make that connection. Until proven otherwise, I'll continue to believe that Hayes talked to Bielema about Borland, then later asked him something along the lines of whether he still believes in slowing down HUNH offenses.
The only way to make football truly safe is simply to not have football. And since Bielema is hardly the only coach with players over 300 pounds, if we're going to suggest he's encouraging lifestyles that lead to death, we have to acknowledge that all football does so - even if players weigh less than 300 pounds. Even quarterbacks, such as Steve Young, have had to retire earlier than they wanted because of concussion issues. We also have to acknowledge that media, such as the author of that column, are earning their own livelihood by choosing to cover a game in which people are essentially killing themselves.
As someone who also writes about these kids and their games, I'll be the first to tell you while their may be some truth to that, it hardly paints a clear picture of what's going on. But I also wouldn't suggest a coach is actively setting up his players to die.
We've been through this. I don't believe Bielema is being disingenuous when he criticizes the HUNH. I think he honestly detests it philosophically, and is using the safety angle as a tangible reason to oppose it. He believes more plays = more fatigue = more injuries. While much of the college football Internet is laughing Bielema off as being self-serving, they're also not really disproving it. And, again, it can't be totally proven or disproven unless coaches want to begin disclosing every minor injury suffered on the field. Something no coach, Bielema nor the HUNH stalwarts, appears willing to do.
Until then, we're left with people who enjoy the HUNH style of football thinking Bielema is ridiculous and those supporting Bielema's conservative brand willing to question it. The needed conversation has been boiled down to basic talking points a la political hacks representing their party of choice on cable news shows.
Another significant point that is rarely made: that 10-second rule would only barely slow down offenses. Few plays, even by the fastest teams, are snapped within 10 seconds. The big benefit to the rule would be for defenses to make substitutions without fear that offenses would snap the ball really early before defenses could get set up, leaving more fatigued players on the field, which could lead to more injuries.
Is it really so wrong, so patently ludicrous, for a coach to suggest a rule change that would limit the inherent advantages offenses have over defenses? That's really what this conversation should be about. Bielema made a mistake last year by making the "death certificates" comment, which led to distorting the entire debate. But that was last year. This year, we get a columnist for the Worldwide Leader making the claim that Bielema is actively leading his players down a path that will lead to early death as a way of dismissing the entire conversation.