There was a sign that read “The Buck Stops Here” on former U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s desk in his White House office.
Where does the buck stop for the Nihon University football team?
A defensive player for the Nihon University Phoenix committed three personal fouls in the first several plays against archrival Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters and was ejected following his third during the exhibition game on May 6 at Amino Vital Field in Tokyo.
In the first of the three fouls, the defensive player hit the Fighters quarterback from behind at least two seconds after he threw an incomplete pass, causing the quarterback to suffer a right knee injury and numbness in his left leg.
The video shows the defensive player changed his course toward the quarterback, who finished throwing and running toward the sideline.
“It can’t be happening. I have been coaching football more than 30 years, but I have never seen such a dangerous play,” Fighters head coach Akira Toriuchi said during a news conference on Saturday on the college campus.
The defender also tackled another quarterback after he handed the ball to a running back, drawing another flag a few plays later.
Kwansei Gakuin University sent a letter to Nihon University on May 10, asking for an apology and explanation of how those penalties happened. The college says it is awaiting a reply from Nihon University until Wednesday, and if Nihon’s apology and explanation are not satisfactory for Kwansei Gakuin, the college will stop the annual friendly game that has taken place for more than 50 years.
What made the Fighters even more furious was the post-game comment by the Phoenix coach Masato Uchida.
“I’ve given my players a lot of pressure because they are not good enough,” Uchida was quoted as saying by the Nikkan Sports website. “We can’t go passive. We have to go aggressive against the Fighters to beat them. We can’t beat them without those aggressive plays (that led to the penalties). I’m responsible for those plays.”
This comment sounded as if he approved of the fouls or even encouraged the players to commit them.
The Kanto Collegiate Football Association and the Japan American Football Association have temporarily decided to suspend the Phoenix defender indefinitely and give Uchida a warning. The associations also announced the formation of a Disciplinary Committee to discuss the issue and decide the official punishment for the player and the Phoenix.
The Phoenix uploaded a letter of apology on their website on Thursday, but Uchida has not appeared in public since the incident. He even skipped Sunday’s exhibition game against Kansai University, and the Phoenix have given no reason for his absence.
On Monday, Hosei University, University of Tokyo and Rikkyo University announced the cancellation of their scheduled exhibition games against Nihon University this spring.
“Currently under the situation in which Nihon University has taken no action to explain why those penalties happened and promise that it never happens again, we cannot guarantee our players’ safety,” Tokyo head coach Kiyoyuki Mori said while explaining the reason his school canceled the game.
The incident drew attention from Japan Sports Agency chief Daichi Suzuki.
“(The first foul play) is very dangerous. It deserves a ‘red card.’ We have to figure out why that occurred,” Suzuki said during a news conference on Monday. “This is an issue all of college sports should work on. It is very important to establish safe circumstances for the players.”
There are some reports that the penalties were made on orders from Uchida and that he even told his players to wound the opponent quarterbacks. But nothing will be definitively known until Uchida offers an explanation.
The Phoenix clinched the collegiate national championship after a 27-year drought by beating the Fighters 23-17 in the Koshien Bowl last December. It was the Phoenix’s 21st national title, while the Fighters have won it 28 times.
The two colleges have met 29 times in the championship game and have become one of the most famous rivalries of Japanese college sports.
The matchup of the two schools is called “Showdown of Red (the Phoenix) and Blue (the Fighters),” in reference to their respective team colors.