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Blanchette: Abuse in football commonplace

Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)
Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)

The Pac-12’s drawn-out inquiry into the sketchy, and in some cases already recanted, indictments that Washington State football is a chamber of horrors presided over by the Marquis de Leach is finished, and it’s a blockbuster.

Really. Check out this conclusion from the 34-page report:

“There does not appear to be any form of abuse in the football program,” it reads.

Do you realize what this means? Wazzu now becomes the only school in the history of big-time college football not to have some form of abuse in its football program.

Another Cougar first!

Abuse is as endemic to college football as the body-bag game and the recruiting violation. It’s the bedrock upon which the sport is built: the gratuitously venomous attack on a player’s manhood and the punitive up-down drill being the only means even mad scientist coaches like Mike Leach have managed to dream up to forge the toughness necessary to win championships. And the lawyers the Pac-12 engaged for its probe saying there’s not a smidgen of it to be found on campus?

Bill Moos might want to demand a recount.

Instead, WSU’s athletic director is elated the Cougs have white-paper refutation of the abuse charges brought by receiver Marquess Wilson in his potshot email the day of the UCLA game – and softened almost as hastily, the player admitting to Pac-12 investigators that he couldn’t “think of another word at the time.”

Which leads to another revelation from Tuesday’s announcement:

The Pac-12’s gumshoes actually questioned Wilson. And Bill Drake, WSU’s head athletic trainer who was shifted away from direct oversight of the football team in mid-season and who had aired concerns about the football staff’s practices regarding player health and safety in an email to associate athletic director Pam Bradetich.

For some reason, WSU’s review decided talking to them was unnecessary. Which is precisely why an independent investigation was. Coug fans have to hope Mike Leach’s game plans are more thorough than those of his bosses.

In fact, the takeaway from the Pac-12’s report that matters is not about the staff’s pointlessly profane approach, or the sand-pit chronicles earlier revealed in the WSU review. Yes, the sand strengthens ankles, but they used to say the same thing about Earth Shoes and Leach isn’t outfitting his players in those. We all know what the pit is mostly there for, and that’s fine. Jim Walden was known to run a wayward player from Moscow to Pullman back in the day.

No, the real rub was the increasingly contentious relationship between the coaching and medical staffs, a condition not exclusive to Washington State – but one that deserves continued monitoring.

Drake wrote in his email, among the documents obtained by The Spokesman- Review in a records request, that “certain practices of the coaching staff that put the health and safety of student athletes at risk. In particular, these practices include punishment workouts that are dangerously excessive.”

Bradetich forwarded the message to Moos, noting that Drake “indicated it was written with attorney consultation.” Flags don’t come any more crimson.

Likewise, the new football trainer, Chris Lange, was quoted in notes from the WSU investigation obtained by the website Deadspin that there is “lots of pressure to get (players) back on the field after an injury.”

Leach even asked Drake to poll other Pac-12 schools about their procedures regarding concussions, suggesting dismay about the loss of playing time impacting his team and perhaps a belief the training staff was riding the brake.

Moos seems not at all dismayed about these developments.

“For coaches to be pushing,” he said, “that is not uncommon. You saw some players last night in that national championship game that were questionable a couple days ago and probably would not have been cleared and ready – we’re no different.”

Somehow, the everyone-does-it dismissal is not a comforting explanation, particularly in a cutthroat industry where everyone is still tiptoeing through new medical minefields.

But pressed if the football staff grasped that the call on player clearance belongs to the trainers, Moos insisted, “They understand.”

There is a consensus out there that this was mostly a waste of time (and probably six figures of WSU’s money), but it never hurts to stress that the athletic department’s top priority needs to be the welfare of its athletes – and that any hint that it isn’t needs to be checked out, though perhaps not with an overwrought public ordeal.

It wouldn’t be unsupportive of Leach’s mission for the AD to put a critical eyeball to the methods now and then.

Oh, and then there’s this: while backtracking from his abuse charges, Wilson told the Pac-12 lawyers the real reason he walked out of the conditioning workout that day.

“There was no point in doing (it),” he said. “(We were) not getting better at football.”

He may have been right. If only he’d left it at that.