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Dirty football tackle creates a perfect storm for news outlets to exploit

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Former Nihon University football head coach Masato Uchida’s alleged order on a player to “crush” an opposing team’s quarterback in a May 6 game between Japan’s traditional rivals for supremacy in American football has dominated sports and tabloid headlines for most of the second half of May.

In repeatedly shown videos, hulking Nichidai linebacker Taisuke Miyagawa can be seen knocking down Kosei Okuno from behind, after the Kwansei Gakuin University quarterback had already thrown the the football. Depending on the media, Miyagawa’s tackle was, by turns, hansoku (illegal), akushitsu (vicious) and even satsujin (homicidal).

“I would compare what the player did, tackling a defenseless player who is looking away, to a boxer slugging his opponent from behind after the bell ending the round and he is walking back to his corner — an almost unforgivable offense,” says Marty Kuehnert, a veteran TV broadcaster and president of the Sendai-based ISMAC sports consultancy. “The only mitigating factor for the Nichidai player is that he was basically ordered to do it, and I am sure he felt he had no choice. I suppose if this happened in the U.S., the coaches would be fired, and the league and/or the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) would levy large fines, and perhaps suspend the team from competition.”

The father of the Kwansei Gakuin quarterback has gone so far as to file criminal charges, something Kuehnert believes is “very much a Japanese concept.”

“It would be highly unlikely for police to become involved in the U.S.,” he says. “You may remember that in August 1984, American baseball player Reggie Smith got hauled into a local police station after he punched a Hanshin player in a game, and the Yomiuri Giants had to use all their clout to dissuade the police from following up on criminal charges.”

From the sheer volume and intensity of the media outrage, one might mistakenly think for a moment we’re dealing with a scandal along the lines of America’s Penn State six years ago, when football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of repeated acts of pedophilia and sentenced to a 30-60-year prison term. That scandal also destroyed the reputations of several other individuals at the school, including the team’s head coach, Joe Paterno — the most successful coach in NCAA history — who died shortly thereafter.

Still, as far as the Japanese media is concerned, it’s time to dig up the dirt on Nichidai. In the perfect storm that has resulted, virtually every magazine and sports tabloid for the past week has featured coverage of the incident. Yukan Fuji (May 30) carried no fewer than five articles, including a front-page story that speculated that the number of aspirants sitting for the 2018 entrance examinations to Nichidai may fall by 10,000.

Shukan Gendai (June 9) devoted six pages to the story and dragged up an account from Friday magazine in August 2013 about team coach Tsutomu Inoue, a then-member of the Nichidai football squad, who appeared in a gay porno video titled “Muscular Children: Innocent Muscle Boys on their Way to the World of Adults.”

And if that weren’t enough, Shukan Bunshun (May 31) came up with a photo of Nihon University Director Hidetoshi Tanaka — described as the “Don” of a collegiate sports empire with a budget of ¥200 billion and recipient of ¥15 billion in public subsidies — shown posing with the heads of two of Japan’s largest crime syndicates, the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai.

According to Flash (June 12), the university is claiming the pictures are composites. However, a source at Nihon University claims Tanaka was acquainted with other syndicate members, although he may have subsequently broken off relations following the passing of new anti-gang laws.

Additional examples of the coverage are as follows:

“Shady composition of the American football club controlled by former coach Uchida,” Shukan Asahi (June 8)

“Quagmire created by Nichidai’s American football rule violation is coach Uchida’s ‘Crime and Punishment,'” Sunday Mainichi (June 10)

“Nichidai’s American football problem is not to be tolerated!!!” Weekly Playboy (June 11)

“‘Order to engage in violence is part of a 60-year tradition in our club,’ former Nichidai players and staff confess,” Josei Jishin (June 12)

“End of the Nichidai dictatorship,” Yukan Fuji (May 29)

“‘Homicidal tackle’ by Nihon University American football team will have a major impact on the Tokyo Olympics,” (Shukan Jitsuwa, June 7)

This would appear to corroborate the view that sports scandals are a media standby, even in a country where American football is about as popular, as a percentage of the population, as curling in Jamaica.

According to the White Paper on Leisure for 2017, issued last year by the Japan Productivity Center, data on the scale of participatory sports in Japan indicated that neither American football nor rugby for that matter made it to the top 28. The total number of practitioners in the sport is probably less than 300,000 nationwide. That’s considerably fewer than people playing baseball (ranked seventh place among all sporting activities), with 5.8 million participants; soccer (12th) with 4.8 million; volleyball (13th), with 4.6 million; and basketball (14th), with 4.1 million.

In its favor, at least, the Japanese version of American football is considerably more civilized than the U.S. sport.

“I don’t think Japanese really understand how violent the U.S. football can be,” Kuehnert says. “In an average year in the States, perhaps five to 10 amateur players die, not just from spinal injuries but brain concussions and heatstroke.

“It’s the only sport I know that requires each team to arrange for doctors, not just physical trainers, to be present during the games, with an ambulance always on standby during games. If the ambulance leaves the stadium to take an injured player to the hospital, another one is called in.”

As for the criminal assault charges filed against the Nichidai player, it may be difficult to convince the court to hand down a guilty verdict. On May 27 — three weeks after the incident with Nichidai — NHK News broadcast excerpts from a game with Okuno wearing jersey No. 3. He showed no ill effects from the May 6 collision, hitting his receiver with a long-distance pass to score a touchdown.

Still, NHK wasn’t taking any chances: When it interviewed Okuno on camera immediately after the game, as befits the rights of a crime victim, neither his face nor name were broadcast.