O’Neil: NFL Will Make A Statement If It Doesn’t Suspend Derwin James

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Derwin James’ assault on Ashton Dulin on Monday night is an outrage in itself, made worse by reports that the NFL will not suspend him.

By its action or inaction, the League will be making an enormous statement to all levels of football.

Nearly 10 years ago, I founded a non-profit national movement to reduce contact in high school football practice and advocate flag football for children under 14.

We named our group Practice Like Pros because we recognized the NFL’s power to influence, to change behavior.

As an executive with the New Orleans Saints in the late ’90s, I witnessed the art of practicing full speed without contact, created largely by 49ers coach Bill Walsh.

Ten years later, watching my son’s high school team, I realized this format had not trickled down. I used to say, “You’ll see more contact in one high school practice than you’ll find in an entire season of an NFL team.”

Practice what you preach

So we formed Practice Like Pros in 2013 with a plan to tour the country, showing high school coaches – not telling them, showing them on video – how NFL teams practice with limited contact.

NFL players and coaches responded. Among them were Cornelius Bennett, Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Maurice Jones-Drew, Archie Manning, Leonard Marshall, Warren Moon, Anthony Munoz, Rocky Seto, Pat Shurmur, Marcus Trufant and Dick Vermeil. Drawn to the mission, they appeared at these clinics without compensation.

In the first year of our tour, scientific research showed 60% of high school concussions were suffered in practice – more concussions in practice than in games!

I opened each clinic with that shocking statistic, then quizzed the audience, “What’s that number in the NFL? What percentage of all NFL concussions are suffered in regular- and post-season practice?”

Answer: 4%.

The presentation room hushed. On the faces of high school coaches and administrators, I could read the impact of the NFL. I could see them thinking, “Are those practice methods transferrable to our game?”

Practice contact reduced in high school

State governing bodies of high school athletics began to consider limits on contact. In 2019, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association reduced practice contact to the lowest level in high school history.

As a thank-you, we brought Vermeil and Shurmur in successive years to the New Jersey coaches’ annual convention with video tutorials on NFL practice technique.

I asked one coach how the new regulations were being received. He said, “We tell our parents, ‘We practice like an NFL team.’ They love it.”

Two months after the New Jersey announcement, I met at the League’s Park Avenue offices with Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent and his staff. He wanted to know more about the movement.

I explained to him, “We’re an advocacy group. We have no authority to dictate change. Our leverage is your league. Our persuasion is presenting NFL standards and methods. That’s why we call ourselves Practice Like Pros.”

Derwin James
Derwin James was ejected on Monday for his hit on a Colts receiver.

The League’s effect is likewise seen at the youth level. As recently as 2014, the NFL Foundation was handing a $45 million check to USA Football, the nation’s leading promoter of tackle football for children as young as 5.

But in subsequent years public service announcements for USA Football have disappeared from NFL telecasts. In their place is an emphasis on flag football, which suddenly is being played by 20 million people in 100 countries.

Vincent was quoted last week: “This is about changing the way people see and feel about the game of football, where everyone can experience the values of the game.”

So on the day after Derwin James’ violent, illegal attack, I implore Troy Vincent:

“The values of the game” were seriously compromised last night. Your maximum fine is not nearly enough. Suspend Derwin James immediately without pay through the postseason. Fight the NFLPA’s inevitable appeal. Know that everyone is watching, particularly the one million teenagers who play high school football. As always, NFL leadership ripples through every level of the game.

Written by Terry O'Neil

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