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Masato Uchida, right, former head coach of Nihon University's American football team, bows during a news conference in Tokyo on May 23. (Photo by Tsuyoshi Tamehiro)

Japan can't stop talking about a violent American football play

Some see themselves in player who says he did what he was told to do

TOKYO -- Coaches overlording players has long been a serious issue in Japanese sports. But earlier this month, the practice blew up into a full-blown scandal.

In an American football game against Kwansei Gakuin University, a defensive end from Nihon University came in after the referee had whistled the play dead and took a below-the-waist dive at the quarterback who had just thrown an incomplete pass and was letting his momentum carry him toward the sideline, his back to the approaching danger.

It was an illegal and violent hit that left the 19-year-old quarterback with a concussion and cervical sprain -- the kind of injuries passengers get when the car they are in gets hit from behind.

The 20-year-old defensive end blamed himself for delivering the hit. But he also blamed himself for not being strong enough to refuse a coaching order to do whatever he could on that very first play of the game to get the quarterback.

The university quickly denied that coaches gave any such order.

The incident has struck a chord in Japan, a nation where company employees often feel as though they are thrust into unethical corporate cultures by bosses who are always ready to take the credit when things go right, just not responsibility when they go wrong. 

Even Japanese who do not follow sports are talking about the violent nature of the hit and what brought it on.

At a press conference, the player, Taisuke Miyagawa, said instructions to deliver the hit had come down from head coach Masato Uchida.

When asked if he had heard the referee's whistle, Miyagawa answered, "I knew the quarterback had already thrown the ball." This is an important fact that could be used to file a criminal complaint against the player.

But Miyagawa is not running from the consequences. Instead, he is speaking up, ready to take responsibility for the hit. He called the press conference himself.

A Nihon University official said "a gap between coaches' instructions and player's perception" is to blame, an explanation that seems unlikely to hold.

 "I told the player to crush the opposing quarterback," defensive line coach Tsutomu Inoue said, "but I didn't mean to purposefully injure him."

To many Japanese who have joined the debate, though, these words are resonating like excuses, as though the coach is bracing for a possible criminal investigation.

Last season, Nihon University won the championship of Japanese college American football, the first time it has managed to do so in 27 years. Miyagawa, who also played for Japan's national team, performed well in the final game, and it was Uchida's first championship as a college football head coach.

Although he has resigned as head coach, Uchida still serves as a university executive in charge of human resources. He also leads the physical education council, which oversees all sports clubs at the university.

The players are students who devoted themselves to achieve an ardent wish long cherished by Uchida and Nihon University. The head coach and school, though, have returned little of this devotion to the players as the scandal envelopes them.

The university's interest seems to be skewed toward protecting Uchida, who is well-known in the college community.

An insistence on showing obedience to one's seniors infests Japanese sportsdom. It allows coaches to coercively control players. Earlier this year, four-time Olympic wrestling champion Kaori Icho said that after winning her second gold medal in Beijing in 2008 she was subjected to repeated harassment by the development director of the Japan Wrestling Federation. The director resigned soon after the allegations were made.

Coaches tend to demand obedience and prohibit players from voicing opinions. Violence often takes place, not only in college but also in high school and middle school sports.

The American football and wrestling scandals have gripped the nation's consciousness because Japanese see them as microcosms of the country's sports and corporate cultures. Loud bosses often take advantage of, and shift responsibility to, obedient workers. Large Japanese corporations like to hire college athletes, thinking they will bring fitness, tolerance and obedience to the company.

"The football scandal resembles corporate cases in which workers are told to take the blame for wrongdoings like bribing officials and establishing price cartels," said Akira Takeuchi, a lawyer who specializes in corporate compliance at the Proact Law Office. "These orders come down as commands made by the company that employs them."

Oppressive coaching styles sometimes deliver results. Even fans praise these kinds of coaches for being "hard working" or "seasoned pros." This makes bullying that much harder to get rid of.

"Football was fun when I started playing it in high school," Miyagawa said. "But it became no fun under the rugged environment at college."

Miyagawa likely is not alone in souring on sports because of obsessive coaches.

Masayuki Yuda and Takuji Kunishida contributed to this story.

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