Marcus Allen: An insider's view of football

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The college football season just kicked off, and L.A. still has to cheer for any pro team but its own. Running back Marcus Allen was a standout in college and the pros: a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, then a record-setter with the Kansas City Chiefs after a contentious but stellar stint with the L.A. Raiders, where his clash with team owner Al Davis was as epic as anything on the field. Now he figures large in a new "The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book," and as a CBS analyst, as well as a man with a lot to say about the state of the game.

In 2003 you were tapped for the Hall of Fame, where the game's history is enshrined. How has football changed since the days of Jim Thorpe or Bronko Nagurski?

The most notable thing is the uniform and the helmet! I'd be hard-pressed to argue the game isn't faster and stronger and bigger, but still I think the great players of that era could have played today. I often wonder: the people who created the game, did they ever think it would become what it is today?

As for the college game, what do you make of the penalties the NCAA meted out at Penn State — banned from bowl games, stripped of scholarships and titles and fined $60 million?

The appalling silence of those who were in power — when they didn't do anything, and allowed [former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky] to be around the facility and use the facility as a tool to go after these kids. I'm not surprised by the harsh penalties, and they should have been greater, in my opinion.

I understood what the NCAA was trying to do. They were trying to send a message that would resonate, to prevent anything like this from happening again. But you don't want to completely destroy a program, and there's the question of players who had nothing to do with this and are affected by the actions of this coach. But they wanted to send a message that obviously football isn't greater than human lives.

I'm not a huge fan of the NCAA because their rendering of penalties seems to be sort of random, without consistency, in how they penalize schools for certain infractions. In this case, they wanted to change the culture of what was going on. That was really important.

At USC the infractions are mostly about money. Is there any ideal way to address the question of compensating student athletes?

It's challenging. I understand the spirit of trying to treat everyone the same, but a dollar in Arkansas and a dollar in Los Angeles certainly don't go the same [distance].

Students have a right to leave after their junior year, but I'd like to see them stay in school to get that education. A lot of them leave prematurely [to make] money. I'd like to make them comfortable enough to stay, so they can complete their four or five years, and leave a little more mature and ready to tackle pro football and the world in general.

Are there enough coaches like your coach, John Robinson, who was all about the student athlete?

I think coaches want all their kids to graduate with degrees. But there's also a reality now that they anticipate kids [going pro] after their junior year. The challenges are completely different for a coach. I had one of the best coaches, who cared about me as an individual. I like to think most coaches do.

The NCAA is so strict that they cause a lot of the issues. People say, wait a second, you get a [full] scholarship. What are you complaining about? Well that encompasses books, room and board, and very little else.

Kids aren't able to do anything other than a summer job. Other than that, if they don't have money sent from home or relatives, almost everything else is seen as an extra benefit. To me that's an indictment of the system. The system needs to be a little less strict and perhaps you won't have people trying to cheat just to stay ahead or just survive while in college.

Did football look different from the broadcast booth once you started there?

No, it didn't. I've always looked at the game within the game, the little nuances that I don't think most people observe. Most people just follow the ball. I look at the line play, I look at the downfield blocking, and I did as a player, and I sort of think that's what made me the player I became.

What do you think of the new playoff system to determine the college championship?

I'm pretty pragmatic. We used to have two teams [playing for the title], and now we'll have four.

Thousands of former pro players — not including you — have sued the NFL over the consequences of concussions. Would changing the rules help?

You can't legislate instinct. It's inherently a violent game, and being physical is one of the hallmarks of a great player. When you've been taught since you're a kid, it's very hard after 15 years to stop no matter how much money [in fines] you're apt to lose. It will take time. They teach you at the Pop Warner level, where it becomes conditioned. That's why we see hit after hit, even though there are huge penalties for doing so. It's hard to get out of their systems.

What do you make of the New Orleans Saints bounty allegations The NFL says bounties were offered for hard hits, including hits to injure opposing players. Much is still up in the air about this, and some players from other teams have said it's just football.

In the case of the Saints, did the results match the rhetoric? I'm asking you — I don't know.

But as to the idea that someone would be offered an incentive to take someone out?

I see it a different way. I see it as a form of creating competition. I'm not trying to soften or lessen what occurred, but I see it as an instrument — I'm not saying it's a good one — of creating competition among the players, an extra incentive, and not necessarily to hurt somebody. That's why I'm asking, did someone actually get hurt after the [bounty] talk? It's just a guess on my part that it was a competition created to be the first to put on a big hit. I'm not saying it's right. It's like someone in the stands talking a lot of trash. There's always a lot of talk.

Do you think these hits are a real problem, with real consequences later in life?

They've done studies on a lot of players who have suffered brain injuries, depression — from what I understand, caused them in some cases to commit suicide. Those things are very real. I'm not a neurologist; all I can say is that right now I'm not affected by it, but you never know down the road. I suffered two concussions, one in college and one in the pros, and many times I've seen stars.

The culture of the game has changed. I'm sure many of the guys who played in the '50s and '60s and even into the '70s would never have said, "Hey, I'm not feeling well." It was important to be on the field at all times. I was one of those tough players who always convinced [coaches] that I was OK. Now they take the necessary precautions, err on the side of caution. I'm not laying blame on the NFL; it had a lot to do with the athlete who always said he was fine.

You think the game is correcting itself?

I think it is. Athletes are speaking out.

Football season is ramping up; baseball is winding up toward the World Series. I expect you'd argue with baseball calling itself America's sport.

I think that was a great marketing ploy many years ago, but I think football is clearly the most popular sport of the big three.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

 

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