Bret Bielema clarifies 'death certificate' comments on rule change

Bret Bielema is concerned with the safety of players of sickle-cell trait. (USATSI)
Bret Bielema is concerned with the safety of players of sickle-cell trait. (USATSI)
Bret Bielema set off a firestorm Thursday night with his comments to an Arkansas boosters club that "death certificates" -- a reference to the recent tragic death of Cal lineman Ted Agu -- were the only evidence he needed to support the proposed rule change that would give defenses 10 seconds to substitute after each play. 

Bielema spoke at length with and reporter Andy Staples Friday, clarifying his comments -- but also vehemently defending his position and the proposed change, thanks to the possible link between deaths like Agu's and sickle-cell trait. (Cal has not issued a cause of death.)

"The reason I brought up the Cal player is this: We all have sickle cell players. To me, it's the most scary individual thing we face," Bielema said. "There are no signs. There are no indicators ... you don't know when it's coming. The kids have difficulty breathing. They don't want to come out of practice or the game. All the ones I've ever been around, they want to stay in because they don't want their teammates to think they're quitting or stopping."

Bielema argued that under the current rules, if he had run out of timeouts, he would be unable to pull a defensive player with sickle-cell trait in distress -- of which he says he has several on his roster -- off the field. Asked by Staples if the player could simply fall to the ground to receive treatment, Bielema said his players would be unwilling to do so.

"Every one of them, those kids don't pull themselves out," he said.

Bielema added that the relative rarity of plays snapped with less than 10 seconds run off the play-clock meant that no-huddle offenses would not be seriously affected.

Intriguingly, Bielema also said the proposal he had originally supported would only give the defense the extra time to substitute on first down, before it was changed to an every-down suggestion.

His arguments  -- and similar arguments made to Friday by rules committee chair Troy Calhoun -- aren't likely to sway coaches committed to the hurry-up-no-huddle, since there's still no public concrete evidence those offenses cause greater levels of exhaustion or other injuries than more traditional ones. And specifically using the inflammatory phrase "death certificates" so soon after Agu's death has done nothing to make the already contentious debate surrounding the proposals more measured and civil, and in doing so Bielema may make them less likely to pass, not more (as argued by no less than Arkansas fan Doc Harper in a well-reasoned post at Arkansas Fight). 

But give Bielema this -- his argument is better thought-out than simply "death certificates," and he does genuinely appear motivated to work for his players' safety (albeit in a fashion, of course, that just-so-happens to work for the good of his personally preferred brand of football). Whether he's doing so in a way that will make any practical difference remains to be seen.

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