Doyle: Nothing will be taken from Wheeler's death
Wednesday August 22, 2001 |
The death of Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler has become a complex portrait of the many things that have gone wrong in the world of college football. The original shock over his death was due to its close proximity in time to the death of Korey Stringer. It was assumed immediately that Wheeler's death could be attributed to heatstroke, the cause of Stringer's demise. Soon after, however, it became clear that the Wheeler case was vastly different, and infinitely more complex.
Wheeler was an asthmatic with a history of more than 30 attacks from the ailment during his time at Northwestern.
Tests performed after his death show that he was taking a performance-enhancing drug named ephedrine that is banned by the NCAA.
He died during a "voluntary" workout - workouts that have been under attack of late because there's clearly nothing voluntary about them.
There wasn't the normal battery of trainers and medical professionals at the workout because it was considered to be an informal conditioning drill. Even worse, the trainer that was there made Wheeler breathe into a bag, thinking he was hyperventilating - a tragic mistake that likely accelerated Wheeler's death.
Videotapes of the practice have been released that show players and coaches continuing a drill while Wheeler was being attended to by EMTs, something so callous it's beyond comprehension.
Surprisingly enough, the outrage hasn't been there. Sure, some have taken the opportunity to use this case as an illustration of why players shouldn't use supplements, or why teams shouldn't conduct these workouts, or why teams should have full medical personnel present every time two players go out to play catch. But these people are missing the point - a young man is dead because he bought into a system, an ethic and all the lies that not only the Northwestern program pushed upon him, but the world of college football as well.
There used to be a time, I think, when men who were 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds didn't run sub-5.0 40-yard dashes, nor were they expected to.
There used to be a time when skinny kids remained that way, even if it meant they couldn't play the game they loved.
There used to be a time when pride was taken in staying clean, doing things the honest way.
There used to be a time when coaches didn't punish their players year-round in the pursuit of the Rose Bowl, or even worse, the Insight.com Bowl.
Perhaps I'm deluding myself, but I can't help but think there was a time when college football was kept in proper perspective.
Whether Wheeler's mother wants to admit it or not, her son ran himself to death. He did so, I believe, with the help of a drug that abnormally increased his adrenaline levels and made him think he could push his body further than it could go.
Furthermore, he believed that there was some virtue in overreaching his limitations - whether it was to satisfy his coaches, his parents, or to allow him to live up to some unrealistic ideal of football immortality.
As much as I would like to say that the blame lies solely on the shoulders of Wheeler, the truth is the young man never had a chance.
Even if his family doctor had told him to stop playing football because of his asthma, he probably would have found a way around it.
If the coaches had told him to sit out, he probably would have continued playing to prove to them he could.
Even if someone had told him that ephedrine has been linked to heart attacks and strokes, he probably would have told himself that it was a sacrifice he should make for his team, his coach, his family, or to prove to himself that he was willing to be the best.
I wish I could single out Northwestern's coach, Randy Walker, for the blame. Sure, he was holding a practice that was outlawed by the NCAA. Sure, his staff continued drills on the same field that one of his players was dying on. Sure, he was trusted to take care of Wheeler - a trust that was betrayed, accidental or not. But Walker can't be blamed for the culture of college football that tells him at all times that winning is still the most important thing, that the Rose Bowl is the only goal and that there will be a player to replace Wheeler on the field.
As for Wheeler, it would be nice to think that his death might be an example to the millions of kids playing football across the country that they need to take better care of themselves, but I think that message will be lost on them.
They will instead look at the autopsy reports that have ruled out ephedrine as the cause of death and continue to think that those warnings from the Food and Drug Administration were made by men and women that don't understand the importance of winning that game on Friday, or Saturday, as the case may be.
It would be nice to think that young asthmatics will look at Wheeler's death and come to the realization that their affliction is serious - deadly serious - and reinforce their willingness to take care of their lungs. But I think those young asthmatics will instead think to themselves that "it's not that bad" and continue to push their bodies to the extreme.
The same goes for the coaches who will continue to push their kids harder, the parents who will continue to tell their sons to "be real men" and ignore an injury or ailment, and the fans who will criticize a player for being fragile.
At the end of all this, Rashidi Wheeler is still dead and nothing has changed. Nor will it.