Japan Riveted by Scandal in American-Style Football

Two former coaches for American-style university football club in Tokyo have been banned for life from the sport for allegedly ordering one of their players to deliberately cripple an opposing player. It is a story that has gripped Japan for a month.

The Japanese could hardly not know about the incident as video of the May 6 game featuring the Nihon University Phoenix against their arch-rivals Kwansei Gakuin has been replayed endlessly throughout the month. Plainly the referee had whistled the play dead when Kwansei linebacker Taisuki Miyagawa tackled the opposing quarterback from behind and below the waist shortly after he had loosed an uncompleted forward pass.

The 19-year old quarterback suffered a concussion plus torn ligaments and knee injuries that put him in the hospital for several days.

That kind of blindsided tackle is illegal everywhere that American football is played. Even in the US, there is a growing debate whether the sport is too violent, giving too many players concussions or other injuries that linger for years. Over the past couple of years, evidence has been growing that brain damage is widespread among professional football players, regularly leading to dementia and early death.

The American version is another cultural import but is not nearly as popular in Japan as baseball, sumo wrestling rugby and, more recently, soccer (which the rest of the world calls football). It is quite possible that most Japanese have never seen a game or understand the rules, but it does have a small devoted following. After playing regular exhibition games in Tokyo from 1976 to 2005, the American professional leagues haven’t played a game in Japan since.

Like baseball, American missionaries introduced American football into Japan in the 1930s, but it really never took off like baseball. Players truly play for the love of the sport since there are no big payouts down the road, no NFL scouts looking for the latest Japanese superstars.

For the most part, American football remains the domain of amateur university clubs. Miyagawa played for the Phoenix of Nihon University. They and the Kwansei Gakuan University team have been archrivals for decades in Japan’s small American football world.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Phoenix team was the powerhouse of Japanese football, winning their university league championship 17 times.

Linebacker Miyagawa apologized for the injury at a tearful press conference he himself called after the incident, in which he bowed deeply and held that pose for 15 seconds or more, a sign in Japan of true contrition.

He also apologized for lacking the moral fortitude to stand up to his coaches after they ordered him to take the opposing player out. He said that the coaches on his team had criticized for his performance on the field in recent games and that he took literally his line coaches’ order to “crush” the opposing quarterback.

There seems to be considerable sympathy in Japan for Miyagawa, who is seen as a kind of victim himself of overbearing and dictatorial coaches. His complaint resonates with many Japanese who can relate to having overbearing bosses themselves.

For some, the violent affair brought back bad memories of the old World War II Imperial Army, where officers were notoriously brutal in the treatment of ordinary soldiers, not to mention civilians and prisoners of war.

The Kanto Collegiate Football Association, which manages the American football and adjudicates disagreements, investigated the tackling incident and its disciplinary committee in late May handed down harsh penalties.

‘It was vicious and nasty play,” said the football association’s chief, Yuji Kakizawa. In meting out lifetime bans from any future competition for the head coach Masato Uchida, and the line coach, who apparently was the one who gave the order to “crush” the opponent.

The coaches do not deny that they ordered the Phoenix player to “crush” the opposing quarterback, but they claim that the youth took their words too literally and misunderstood their intentions.

Miyagaya and the whole Phoenix team were suspended for the rest of the season. But no other penalties were exacted from him. The committee noted that he “had no intention of shutting down the club forever.”

The quarterback victim of the tackle said he had filed an official complaint with the police, so it is possible that Japan hasn’t heard the last of this ugly incident as it may bring legal judgments down on their shoulders.