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A defensive player on Nihon University’s football team has publicly acknowledged that he was following his coaches’ orders when he slammed into the Kwansei Gakuin University quarterback long after he had thrown a pass in a game May 6. Masato Uchida, who has quit as head coach of the Nihon University Phoenix over the late tackle that left the quarterback severely injured, denies the claim, while assistant coach Tsutomu Inoue says his instructions to his player to “crush” the quarterback had been misunderstood.

The explanations by the Nihon University player and his coaches may differ, but it seems clear from the player’s account that he had been cornered into following what he took as orders from the coaches to wallop the quarterback. That does not relieve the player of his responsibility for injuring the quarterback with his dirty tactics, nor should the coaches evade blame for at least cornering the player into feeling he had to take cheap and dangerous shots.

In a controversial play that has generated strong media attention for a college football exhibition game, Nihon University defensive end Taisuke Miyagawa launched himself into the back of the Kwansei Gakuin quarterback’s knees well after he had released the ball. The quarterback sustained a knee injury as well as ligament damage to his spine, but thankfully no nerve damage. Video of the dirty play went viral and led a number of other schools to cancel their games against Nihon University. The cheap shot took on a more ominous note when the media reported allegations that Miyagawa was following the orders of his coaches — which Miyagawa himself confirmed when he publicly spoke about it last Tuesday.

Appearing before the media, Miyagawa said he had been told by assistant coach Inoue prior to the game with Kwansei Gakuin that he would get playing time if he vowed to “crush” the opposing quarterback — which he said he interpreted as an order to injure the player. He also said Inoue told him that it would be beneficial for their team if Kwansei Gakuin, their archrival with which they had competed for the national championship a number of times, did not have the quarterback during the fall season.

Holding a news conference a day later, Uchida and Inoue, while offering apologies to Kwansei Gakuin, its quarterback as well as to Miyagawa, denied that they had given such orders. Uchida said he never specifically told Miyagawa to intentionally engage in illegal play. Inoue admitted that he told Miyagawa to “crush” the quarterback but denied instructing him to “injure” the opposing player.

The parties may differ over whether there was a specific order to injure the quarterback. But putting everything together, the implied message from the coaches to the player seems clear enough — and something that the player would have hardly been able to disobey in the environment of college football, where the words of the coaches carry absolute power.

The assistant coach’s alleged remark that Nihon University would gain if the opponent’s quarterback couldn’t take the field raises the question of why they even play the sport. In college sports, players and coaches are of course supposed to try their best to win. But if winning becomes the absolute purpose of playing the game — and if the purpose of winning the game justifies the means — the sport loses its meaning. In a contact sport like football, dirty play outside the rules of the game can easily descend into violence. If the illegal tackle was indeed intended — and ordered — to injure the opposing player, that would be nothing short of a criminal offense.

The father of the injured Kwansei Gakuin quarterback has reportedly said he is considering filing a criminal complaint against the Nihon University coaches. It is unfortunate that a controversial play in a college sport could end up becoming a criminal case.

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