Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has a target on his back. Of course, he put it there himself. That's what happens when you're outspoken on topical football issues and don't have a filter.
That said, there's no denying Bielema has a platform—player safety—and he's 100 percent committed to campaigning for it.
On Friday, Bielema tweeted a photo of a new helmet that his players will be wearing. Created by Riddell, the helmets are designed to prevent concussions.
The ad states, "The SpeedFlex's unique shell design is engineered to disperse energy and reduce the risk of trauma, while Riddell's InSite Player Management Software alerts the sideline to significant, single or multiple impacts that possess attributes that may result in a possible concussion."
Of course, Bielema put his signature stamp on the tweet: "Player safety [is] always Priority [No.] 1."
Every sound bite, every tweet is an opportunity for Bielema to let others know what he's all about. He's all in with the player safety platform, and that's needed in today's game.
Bleacher Report's Michael Felder correctly pointed out nearly two years ago that the NCAA and its membership were failing athletes when it came to practical player safety improvements. By using these advanced helmets, Arkansas is becoming part of the solution.
That's something everyone can get behind.
The problem, however, is that Bielema hasn't always taken that approach.
Bielema's campaign started with pace-of-play, but long before the so-called "10-second rule" was proposed in February. His desire to slow down college football offenses can be traced back to SEC Media Days in 2013. Via David Brandt of the Associated Press:
All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15.
Bielema's stance on pace-of-play, and later the 10-second rule, put him in the vocal minority. But it was his explanation of why 10 seconds should be allowed to run off the 40-second play clock for substitution that got him in trouble.
When asked last month what evidence there was suggesting that uptempo offenses increased injury risk, Bielema replied, "Death certificates. There's no more anything I need than that." (H/T Kurt Voigt of the Associated Press.)
Specifically, Bielema referenced the passing of former Cal football player Ted Agu, who died during a training run earlier in the month. Although Bielema said Agu had the sickle cell trait, no official cause of death was released at the time.
If one of those players is on the field for me, and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game. And he raises his hand to stop the game, and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?
Linking a supposed cause of death to a style of offense was a stretch at best. If nothing else, it was insulting given the timing.
Still, the Arkansas coach stuck by his player safety platform. In an interview with Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, Bielema explained his thought process:
I always make the guarantee when I'm in the parents' home. I say I can't guarantee playing time or a degree, but I'm going to guarantee that I'll help you get both. And the second thing I can guarantee is that I'll always look out for the safety and the well-being of your son. When you're halfway across the country, that means something. It means you're going to look out for their safety.
It would be tough for a recruit and his family not to like that recruiting pitch. At this point, perhaps those are the only people Bielema has in his corner.
There wasn't a solid case for the 10-second rule from its inception. There's also a non-scientific study via cfbmatrix.com that slower, more powerful offenses, like the one Arkansas runs, are more likely to cause injury.
But Bielema has a strong opinion about an increasing concern in today's game. Improving player safety, like the helmets, should be a progressive movement everyone can get behind. That doesn't mean Bielema's always been right or tactful, but he has been persistent.
Bielema, for all the criticism he invites, is a major voice for that movement. That, by itself, deserves some credit.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.
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