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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Can Football Keep Taking These Hits?

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Next week the dizzying coverage of the NFL draft will remind us that whatever the season, football is the No. 1 professional sport in America. But the NFL is facing a crisis created by the nature of the sport.

A torrent of evidence shows that repeated full-speed collisions cause terrible long-term damage to many players' brains, to say nothing of their bones. Even as the NFL acts to protect its human assets, the "Bountygate" scandal surrounding former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has people asking whether inflicting pain is an essential part of the game's culture.


Is football's very future clouded by the safety issue? Before Frank left on a trip back East, the Observers talked it over.

Frank: Gregg Williams just said out loud—and offered bounties for—what coaches and players have been thinking all along. "If we blast this guy hard enough, he'll have to leave the game, and that's better for us."

Artie:
Bill Simmons had a good column on grantland.com discussing how tough it will be to change what he called the sport's "ingrained culture of violence." He quoted Peter King as noting recently that "the same league that's making such a fuss about violence ran a show called 'Ten Most Feared Tacklers' on its own network last week."

Frank:
Until a few years ago, ESPN had a lot of fun with "Jacked Up," when the studio guys would chortle over players getting obliterated on the field.

Artie:
Simmons went on to say this:

"The truth is the NFL doesn't know what the hell it wants. It's the most successful sports league ever; the value of its franchises has never been higher; its television money has never been greater. Only there's an elephant in the room—and it's not the Williams tape, Bountygate or even the hundreds of concussion-related lawsuits from former players that are coming. If they change how football is played and turn it into a glorified version of the Pro Bowl, there's a chance people won't like the sport as much."


Frank:
But if they don't change it enough, football may start withering for lack of players. Because we'll reach the tipping point with parents telling their kids, "You're not playing football!"

Artie:
Man, you're talking about the end of the American Empire! But there'd be a boom in high-school chess clubs.

Frank:
In the parental context, I noticed some comments Troy Aikman made a few weeks ago, suggesting that pro football someday won't be the No. 1 sport. Part of his thinking was that the NFL is getting overexposed...

Artie:
Another part of the hypocrisy. Simmons notes that Roger Goodell is cracking down on violent play but also wants to expand the regular season to 18 games.

Frank:
Aikman's other concern was simply the danger of the sport.

Artie:
He ought to know. He had several concussions with the Cowboys.

Frank:
Aikman doesn't have a son, but here's what he said:

"If I did, I wouldn't tell him he couldn't play football. If he wanted to, I would say, 'OK, great.' But I don't know if I would be encouraging him to play. Whereas with the other sports, you want your kids to be active and doing those types of things."


Artie:
But you don't want them continually running into each other full-tilt.

Frank:
For 20 years I've said that if I became the Czar of Sports, I'd ban football, because too often players are coached to inflict damage, inflict pain. Williams is just a foul-mouthed, extreme example of that.

Artie:
Fans share in the hypocrisy too. Simmons wrote about seeing Muhammad Ali, at the Miami Marlins' opener, trembling so badly that he couldn't throw the first pitch—he had to hand it to the catcher. Simmons went on:

"I noticed this, digested it and felt absolutely horrible about it. Yes, I will keep watching boxing. Which makes me a hypocrite."


Frank:
Me too. I never played organized football and wouldn't want a son doing it, but I sure do watch it.

Artie
: And, according to Simmons, "That's what the NFL is banking on these next few years—hypocrisy..."

Frank:
You can say you're watching it for the skills or the strategy, you can wrap it in the flag and say it's the American way, but to some extent you're also watching a potential train wreck. And the NFL isn't the only league fueled by hypocrisy. The NHL touts itself as "the world's fastest game," but everybody knows it also thrives on the super-hits and fighting.

Artie:
Giving the people what they want.

Frank:
I was at an Admirals game the other night. Late in the game an Admiral really clocked someone at center ice, sent him flying, and drew a penalty. That sparked the biggest cheer of the night from a crowd that included lots of little kids. And this is a game that may have a concussion crisis as big as the NFL's.

Artie:
If they get their violence issue cleared up, maybe they'll try to figure out how people can watch on TV and be able to see where the dang puck is! I swear it's mostly in the referee's pocket.

Frank:
There was a very interesting Sports Illustrated article in February by a hockey mom in Minnesota named Karen S. Schneider. Her son Cade, who's 14, played with a kid who was hit from behind, went into the boards and suffered a paralyzing injury.

Artie:
And now her son is a former hockey player?

Frank:
No, and that's what made her article so touching. It wasn't a diatribe against hockey, but it was a plea to make the game safer. She acknowledged that injuries can't be completely avoided in a contact sport, but she went on:

"But there is a force field. For 10 years it has set my nerves on edge. It is generated by parents who bang their hands on the glass and yell at their sons to 'Take him out!' And by coaches who scream at their players to "Take the body!' And by everyone who shouts at the refs to 'Let them play the game!'...


"The first time I heard a dad scream, 'Kill that kid!' in reference to Cade, he was a Mite. Six years old. I turned to look at the man and said to him, "That's my son." He rolled his eyes and walked away. The message was clear: 'You don't get it.'"


Artie:
In youth hockey it seems there are more fights among parents in the stands than on the ice.

Frank:
That's because they don't tolerate fighting among players at that level—or any other, short of the pros. The NHL could do likewise, but it doesn't want to.

Artie:
What else do they have when you can't see the puck?

Frank:
Ms. Schneider lives with a huge dilemma. She wants to protect her kid, but he wants to play a sport he loves and he wants to show his buddies he can take it physically. And no parent can protect a kid from everything; there are injuries in soccer, too, and baseball and basketball.

Artie:
Or you could be walking through a gated community with a bag of Skittles.

Frank:
But hockey, like football, has collisions as an essential element. So Ms. Schneider says this:

"For me, there is nothing to do but hope. I hope that the adults in charge of the game can alter the force field... referees call the games tighter, coaches argue less, parents yell less and the players hit less by the boards.


"But this is hockey."


Artie:
And for other parents, football.

Frank:
Sports do come and go in popularity. After all, what were the three most popular sports 70 years ago?

Artie:
Baseball, boxing and horse racing. Now two are on life-support.

Frank:
The fate of football in a few decades? It's in the hands of future generations of parents.