An Interview with Two-Time Superbowl Champion Carl Banks

Two-time Superbowl champion Carl Banks came to Oxford recently and shared his thoughts on everything from the future of the NFL in the UK to Trump’s ‘locker room’ remarks.

On the rise of the NFL in the UK and its prospects going forwards:

I’m really excited that American football is taking shape at such a young level because it’s so hard to import a sport if it’s not embraced by the youth culture. A lot of what you guys are experiencing with American football here in the UK, we are experiencing with soccer in the United States. There are two professional sports leagues in the United States for soccer, but you get a drop off. Kids play when they are really young and then they stop. When you see soccer in the US, it’s more people from particular countries rooting for teams. But they’re starting to get it better-introduced at a youth level; it’s a grass roots effort.

On how the game can increase in safety:

They’re teaching proper fundamentals, proper techniques. You don’t have to worry about as many head injuries when you’re teaching from a starting point of safety. When I learned football, we were taught safety first fundamentals. Now it’s ‘how big of a hit can you get’ and that is why they are penalising players; it’s because they want more safety. You guys also have the good fortune of having rugby as a sport. They are some of the most fundamentally sound tacklers. They don’t have helmets or anything, and they can make good sound fundamental tackles. So I think that is where the sport is going. I don’t think the appeal is going to be lost. It’s a contact sport so there’s always going to be some type of injury, but I think head injuries are something they definitely want to cut down on, and they do that by emphasising good fundamentals and proper tackling; such as not using your head as a weapon.

On the targeting of Cam Newton so far this season:

Well you have to legislate some of these things out of the game. The game that I saw him take unnecessary hits was their opening game against Denver. They can see those, they just chose not to call them. But the NFL has done so much to protect quarterbacks and that was why it was shocking to see him get hit so much. Defenders complain that you can barely lay a finger on a quarterback without getting a penalty. Running quarterbacks get probably the least amount of protection from the officials because they are always running around, and they become running backs once they leave the pocket. So those protections that apply to pocket passers are no longer appropriate for them. But he took a lot of hits in that first game that were, I think, penalties and unnecessary. It does (come back to the coaches) because, if you’re on Carolina’s side-line, you’re blaming them; if you’re a Denver Broncos fan you’re giving them credit. If you can take their best player and somehow remove him from the game; if you can intimidate that player, make him hesitant, then it helps your team’s chances. If you’re looking on the side of safety it’s definitely their coaches’ fault because they were told to hit the guy as much as possible.

On what led him to pursue football:

I used to watch football, and I wanted to emulate some of the people I saw but, what attracted me to football, was just me wanting to play a contact sport. I was ten years old, and I was walking in my neighbourhood and there’s this group of kids playing football. I had just moved into the neighbourhood so I walked up to the coach and I asked; ‘so how much does it cost to play’ and he said: ‘nothing, you just have to get a permission slip from your mamma and bring your equipment every day.’ That’s pretty much how my football career started. That was the most fun I ever had, playing as a kid, because we had a chance to enjoy it, but it was all about learning the proper fundamentals and techniques.

On why he chose to play linebacker:

I didn’t, it was chosen for me. I thought I was a better basketball player than football player. I played offensive tackle and defensive tackle in high school and I was projected as either a linebacker or a tight-end in college. There were drills and they put me in the tight-end line; when they throw the ball you are meant to catch it and go towards the goal line. Every time I caught it, I ran it back and handed it back to the coach. They told me: ‘you don’t want to score touchdowns, go play linebacker’. That’s how I became a linebacker.

On why he put such value on a back-up plan:

Over the course of my career, if I have to go back from grade school through college, I was never afforded the luxury of being the best player on my team in high school. In college we were never the best team, we were horrible in college and then somehow, someone figured out I was going to be a good pro and I was taken the number three player in the entire NFL draft. Reading about so many of these great players that were coming from these great colleges and really good programs. I thought ‘well we stink and I don’t even know if anybody will be paying attention to our college or even me’. But I think I had a pretty good career and I think I was able to give them a pretty good return on their investment.

On the various backgrounds in the NFL:

Your chances for success, or your chances for being known, are greater when you go to a school that has a more prominent program. But talent normally shines no matter where it is. The road might be a little different, but you can make it through if you’re good enough.

On whether youngsters can afford to put all their efforts into football:

You can’t. It’s so tricky for any young man, and I don’t care how talented they are, to say ‘I’m not doing anything else, I’m going to be a pro’. It’s great to have that mind-set but there are too many variables you can’t control, such as injury or anything like that, that would prevent someone from really fulfilling that. It does take a lot of luck and skill.

On the lack of balance between sport and academics in college:

There is a lack of balance. But when you’re at an Oxford or Harvard they’re not going to compromise their curriculum for a sports program. A lot of colleges in the US have curriculums built around athletics because athletics is what brings in the revenue. A lot of colleges are under scrutiny for having really bad curriculums that are really do-nothing courses for students that just get through and have nothing to show for it.

On the prospect of wages for college athletes:

I’ve always been in favour of compensation for college athletes. It’s unfair given the demands that are put on the athletes to grow the program, yet the only people who make real money are the coach and everyone else. There should be some type of system for a college athlete, even if he doesn’t get paid, to have the ability to work to make his own money. Because every other student can go work when they want to while they’re still attending college. The programs are too big now, and they make so much money. I know everybody says ‘what about the poorer sports, or the sports that don’t get as much attention, like swimming.’ Well, once you pay the players, the school can divvy up the rest of the revenue because they make a lot of money. The NCAA is the governing body but the colleges should do it, or they should figure it out jointly. Then, in fairness, it eliminates the cheating by players; players accepting money from donors and things like that. If everything’s above board then they don’t have to worry about that.

On the best player he was around:

Oh without a question it’s Lawrence Taylor, I have no hesitations saying that. There are times when you are around high level performers, high level production people, high production thinkers and you wonder to yourself; ‘how did he see this, or how did he know this?’ He lived kind of a wild life, and we had a big game coming up against the Washington Redskins. He was late for a meeting and we were watching our game film. He came in and he went so sleep, crawled under a table and went to sleep. So our coach, who is now putting together our pass rush game plan of how we’re going to attack the QB (something that he should be awake for as he was our best guy), he stops the film and he starts screaming at Lawrence Taylor. Lawrence Taylor looks up, he takes off his shades and he says ‘ok put the film on’. He saw one play, we’d been in the meeting for like an hour, he saw one play and he went to the chalk board and drew up our entire game plan. He was just a different level thinker. I consider myself a pretty smart football player, but he saw the game so differently, and that kind of defines greatness at its highest level. It’s like Michael Jordan making shots, you can line 5 other people up to do the same thing and they probably have less than half the rate of success. It’s just they see things differently, they see angles differently; it’s kind of a genius level in sport.

On transitioning away from the NFL:

The transition is really not that tough, it’s more mental than physical because when you think about things it takes to be successful: you need preparation, you need the ability to deal with failure and get back on your feet for success, you’ve got to deal with adversity, you’ve got to deal with a diverse culture of people and a diverse culture of mind-sets. Now that’s a locker room on a daily basis. And those things come at you so fast. Decision making on the field of play is split second and as you fail you have to get up and do it again within the next forty-five seconds or you fail again. So the mind-set is there. Physically you no longer have to do it when you’re out of the sport, you just have to retrain your mind that ‘ok I no longer have to push and pull but my problem solving and deductive reasoning; it’s been there. I’ve done this my whole life. Ever since I was aged I think 8 years old, I was playing football. So teamwork, leadership, problem solving, game planning, preparation; I’ve been doing it. So to step away from football, all I’m stepping away from is a very sore body on a Monday morning. I can trade that in for a suit. It’s just a shift in the mind-set, saying ‘I have all the qualifications, I have the tools, and I just have to apply that in a different arena.’

On the decrease in NFL ratings in the US:

There are a lot of competing interests for viewership right now in the States. It’s election time and they have quite a character who can grab anyone’s attention. I don’t think the game is oversaturated, but I would love to revisit this after the November election. The American public have been so caught up in the phenomenon of what Donald Trump can say and do. If you look at the ratings of all the news organisations since he’s been running, they are probably at record highs, and sports are probably losing viewership to them. But I would like to examine it after November, because then we can probably have a different discussion if the numbers are still down. Then it could be other factors.

On Trump passing comments off as ‘locker room talk’:

I’ve been in locker rooms for a very long time and there are things said, and it varies in degree, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard that particular phrase used. I’ve heard a lot of different things that probably come close or are over the top, but never that direct.

On the mean streak required to be great leading to off-the-field issues:

You have to have that mean streak to be really good at what you do in that particular sport. In any other sport you have to have a killer instinct, you have to be a finisher. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a social misfit to be that. That’s not inherent in every person that has a mean streak. We just so happen to have some bad characters that play our sport that can’t leave that part of it on the field. But that’s no different than society; you’ve got bad characters that won’t behave in any environment. Then there are those that can be misfits and then be quite normal in the right environment. I think sometimes it’s accelerated because of the hyper-masculinity or the combativeness of the sport you are in. I’m not a sport psychologist, I don’t know if you’re predisposed pre-sports and that it’s sport that makes it worse. But I know there are really good people who play who have really mean streaks during the four hours of competition.

On how coaches need to adjust in order to avoid such issues:

I think coaching methods are so different now. The way today’s athlete processes information is different. That’s why we have one-hundred-and-forty characters in twitter and not books. But that is a contributor to the hyper-ness of today’s athlete. How can you get their attention? How can you keep their attention? How can you motivate? It’s a delicate balance, but don’t get me wrong when I say a mean streak; that means you’ve got to have a killer instinct. I’m old school, but not crazy. I’m not advocating going out and hurting someone. But it’s a physical sport, you’ve got to have a sense of toughness about you. But you don’t have to be hyper-aggressive, you have to be fundamentally sound. If coaches teach from that standpoint and can communicate in a language that today’s athlete understands then they will have success. You have less deviant behaviour and you’ll be less attracted to having those sorts of players on your team. That’s why guys like Greg Hardy haven’t found another job yet. You have a situation now with the Giants, with their kicker who has domestic violence issues, that he may not be able to find another job. They want good citizens, they don’t want deviant behaviour disguised as a mean streak, or disguised as a toughness. They want a guy who’s a good person, who can play tough but not be a deviant. They do have to change some methods in some organisations; other organisations have already figured it out. They won’t go near those types of players because the risk isn’t worth the reward any more.