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Kliff Kingsbury plans to give Cardinals ‘cellphone breaks’ because they need ‘that social media fix’

Arizona Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury understands cellphone addition. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)
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Cellphone addiction is a real and dangerous thing, but one NFL coach is trying to make peace with it.

Kliff Kingsbury, the Arizona Cardinals’ first-year coach, says he’s going to give players “cellphone breaks” during team meetings in the week leading up to game day. “They’re itching to get to those things,” he said (via ESPN) Tuesday during the NFL owners’ meetings in Arizona.

Kingsbury, 39, hopes to cut down on distractions with the breaks, which he gave players when he was coaching at Texas Tech. The breaks he’ll give his pro players, whose average age is 25, will come every 20 to 30 minutes. “You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix,” he said, “so we’ll let them hop over there and then get back in the meeting and refocus.”

Will it work for a first-year NFL coach who will be under pressure to adapt to the pro game quickly — to be the next Sean McVay? Or will the breaks be the one thing old-school NFL dreads more than almost anything else — a distraction?

Jim Tomsula tried a similar approach for different reasons way back in 2015, when he was the first-year coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Rather than submit players to meetings that can run two or so hours, he broke them into 30-minute sessions followed by 10-minute breaks in which to “go grab your phone, do your multitasking and get your fix.”

“The [experts] are telling me about attention spans and optimal learning,” he said in a 2015 Wall Street Journal story. “I’m thinking, ‘My gosh, we sit in two-hour meetings. You are telling me after 27 minutes no one’s getting anything?’ ”

Tom Rathman, then the team’s running backs coach, added, “You’d hate to think someone would want to bring a phone in and text in a meeting … but that’s what you’re facing. So Jimmy is doing a great job giving them enough time to do all that stuff so they don’t want to bring it into a meeting.”

How did Tomsula’s first season work out? The Niners won five games and he was fired when the season ended so there’s a bit of a calculated risk as Kingsbury looks for the sweet spot between shortened attention spans and the need to quickly implement a new playbook in a game that will be far faster and more complex than what the players (and he as a head coach) have been accustomed to.

“I think coming from the college ranks to obviously, those young men, it’s got to be quick hitters, 20 minutes at a time, give them a break and get them back in,” he said. “We want to make sure that when we have them, they’re focused, and they’re locked in, and we’re maximizing their time. So if we’ve got to split it up or have shorter meetings, that’s what we do.”

The approach comes at a time of increasing awareness about the dangers of cellphone addiction and advice for how to tame the habit. Last December, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, spoke of the “tremendous guilt” he feels over a social network that he believes has eroded “the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

“It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are,” he said. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”

Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who helped invent the iPod, wants to make it clear that the problem is people, not technology. “The devices themselves are not addictive,” he said. “That’s like saying a refrigerator is addictive. No, it’s the food inside them. The devices are not addictive, but the things they deliver can be addictive.”

Kingsbury is going to try to meet the problem head-on, in a managed way. Will it be effective? He says it has worked for him in the past. And, besides, the NFL is changing. It wasn’t that long ago that playbooks were converted to tablets (with the NFL conveniently signing a sponsorship agreement with Microsoft) and they’re now prevalent on the sidelines.

Kingsbury’s players will have to leave the cellphone behind on game days. The NFL restricts player use of devices. “Unless specifically permitted by League rules, the use of cellular phones, smartphones, tablet devices, computers, wearable electronic devices such as Google Glass, and other electronic equipment by coaches, players, and other club personnel is prohibited in club-controlled areas including, but not limited to, sidelines and coaches’ booths,” the league’s electronic devices rule states in the Game Operations Manual. “These restrictions apply from 90 minutes prior to kickoff through the end of the game, including halftime. Coaches, players, and other team personnel are permitted to use such electronic devices in the locker room prior to kickoff and are permitted to use League-issued Microsoft Surface tablets throughout game day for viewing coaches’ still photos.”

Using a phone is a habit, though, and failure to leave it behind can be costly. In 2006, Jim Mora, then coach of the Atlanta Falcons, was fined $25,000 for using a cellphone to ask what playoff implications a tie might have for his team during overtime of a Christmas Eve 2005 game against Tampa Bay. And don’t even think of hiding one under a goal post for a touchdown celebration.

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