MINNEAPOLIS – Jon Gruden is here to talk about saving football, but really, this is about America.
Underfunded public schools, breakdown of community bonds, empty parks, kids with their heads buried in smartphones, people who question everything and believe in nothing, litigation culture, pervasive negativity – it’s not the country Gruden recalls growing up in, on his way to becoming a Super Bowl-winning coach and TV star.
And yeah, Gruden gets “really disgusted and almost pissed at people that are beating up football,” debating its dangers and its future instead of focusing on broader issues, at a time Gruden thinks the lessons sports teach are vital.
“I’m trying to create a real urgency out there, not because I have any other interests than I want my kids and their kids and my kids’ kids’ kids to play football if they want to,” Gruden told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday, sitting in a downtown hotel restaurant during a break in prep for his broadcast of the Minnesota Vikings-New York Giants game.
“I know (Hall of Fame linebacker) Harry Carson came out and said, 'Hey, I wouldn’t let my (grandson) play.' I heard (President Barack) Obama say 'I wouldn’t let my kid play.' And those are the articles that you guys are writing. But nobody’s writing articles about the people that say, ‘Bulls---!’ This is a great game!”
At a pub next door, dozens of like-minded folks awaited – local coaches and players along with longtime Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, who presented a $7,500 check to Gruden’s Fired Football Coaches Association, saying there’s no greater champion of the game than Gruden, and high school football “might be the best chance we have to get this society back on track.”
Usually, it’s Gruden presenting the checks. Partnering with Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hooters and other sponsors, the FFCA intends to assist more than 100 youth and high school programs this year. (The NFL and USA Football pledged recently to match ESPN’s $100,000 donation to the Dick’s Sports Matter initiative, with the money directed towards high school programs in the markets Gruden and the Monday Night Football crew travel to this season.)
Birk, now a special advisor to the NFL, said Gruden moderated a discussion in New York in June with a group of about a dozen high school coaches and NFL executives, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, “just to try to get a finger on the pulse of what it’s like to coach high school football.”
“I kind of like to be one of the guardians of the game,” Gruden said. “I don’t want to look at myself like I’m some superhero. But I’m not going to let people wipe their feet on football on my chest. Some of the stuff that they’re saying, some of the stuff that they’re trying to do – it’s getting absurd.”
Gruden, 53, says he knows the evolving science, which has increasingly highlighted the impact of repetitive head trauma. The NFL reached a $1 billion settlement with former players over concussions. Last month, the league committed $100 million toward developing technology such as improved helmets and medical research, primarily neuroscience, as part of a new initiative called “Play Smart. Play Safe.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, overall participation in football was up slightly last year, in part because more girls played. But the number of boys playing football dropped by nearly 10,000 from 2013 to ’14. Gruden thinks that’s related to a bigger problem – defunding of youth and high school sports programs, which he saw firsthand while coaching one of his sons’ teams soon after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired him in 2009.
“The school district does give us money, but they’re cutting money every year, so we’re losing assistant coaches that would help us train kids the safe way,” said Michael Houston, in his ninth year as head coach at St. Paul Harding. “Kids don’t want to go out and just play anymore, so they’re on social media. And some of the parents don’t want their kids to play football.”
Specialization is another issue, said longtime coach Dave Nelson, whose numbers at Minnetonka High School this year were down for the first time. “The game is under a little scrutiny,” Nelson said, “and we’ve got to make sure we keep our game great.”
Safety concerns in football have always existed, Gruden points out. (He’d know, having cracked a vertebrae in his neck as a high school junior and suffered an elbow injury in college that prevents his right arm from straightening.) He’s all for a variety of rules changes instituted with health and safety in mind. He also sees contradiction in the way the media has covered concussions and other issues in football, given it’s not the only activity that comes with risk.
“I turn on TV and one of the highest-rated shows is two women cage-fighting,” Gruden said. “And they’re playing into submission. They’re kicking the s--- out of each other. ‘That’s OK! We’ll go to that! Don’t play football, but we’ll sponsor this!’”
America “used to be a place where you could pick out what you wanted to do, and you could do it,” Gruden said. “You want to take a charge from LeBron James coming down the lane with no helmet on – that’s dangerous. But you know what? Some people like to do that stuff. So leave them alone.
“We’ve got enough issues in this country without worrying about some of the things we’re worrying about. It’s unbelievable to me. And as long as I’m alive, I know what football gave me. It taught me my work ethic. It gave me a sense of discipline. It taught me sportsmanship, teamwork and a lot of key things that there’s no way I could’ve got in social studies.”
He’s not saying every boy or girl should play. But Gruden doesn’t want to live in a place where parents aren’t free to support their kids’ passions, or where the means to pursue those passions don’t exist at all.
“There’s a lot of research people have accumulated that will work against me, whatever I say,” Gruden said. “But I say when I went to high school football, college football, you had to sign a waiver. You could get hurt or killed playing this game – that was pointed out to us by our coaches and trainers.
“When does it end? We’re talking about full-speed, tackle football. It’s not safe. We’re going to try to make it safe, but it’s not for everybody.”
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.