GUEST COMMENTARY: Football, our ruinous game

Friday, May 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

The apparent suicide of Junior Seau, the former NFL superstar linebacker, has again raised the age-old question:

"Is playing football dangerous, as in potentially lethal?"

Let me think about that. You've got a sport where 240-pound people are paid to run into other 240-pound people while 320-pound people try to stop them. Occasionally, as we've recently learned, they get paid to knock opposing players from the game by injuring them.

Gee, I don't know. What could be dangerous about that?

Come on, let's get real.

Of course football is dangerous, and its cumulative effects are often ruinous.

Seau's death is merely another stone on the growing pile of evidence that football is not only bad for the knees and back; it also destroys the brain.

His suicide follows close on the heels of two similar suicides by former pro football players, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson. Both of them, like Seau, had played with abandon, recklessly sacrificing their bodies (and heads) for the glory of victory.

And, like Seau, they had suffered multiple concussions during their long careers. Easterling, the oldest, had been diagnosed with dementia not long before his death.

Amazingly enough, researchers only recently began connecting the mental deterioration of aging former football players to the concussions they suffered while playing the game.

This is partly due to the cavalier attitude taken toward concussions by the football culture. Players who were knocked semi-conscious during a game were said to have had "their bell rung" and were sent back into games at the earliest possible moment.

That's no longer the case. A series of lawsuits filed by players seeking damages for the head injuries they suffered in the service of an uncaring management has made the NFL take the problem of concussions seriously.

Not so the fans. Football fans, particularly fans of professional football, are a bloodthirsty breed. They take great delight in seeing bone-shattering collisions and hold in high regard players who can best deliver them. They have a high tolerance for pain — in others — and show little sympathy for the plight of the players who now are seeking redress for their injuries.

Lem Barney, one of the best players in the 1960s, now says he wished he'd never played football.

"Never. Never," the former defensive back told The Detroit Free Press in March. Nor would he allow his sons to play. "It would be golf or tennis," he said.

The emails that came flooding into the newspaper in response were stunning. They accused Barney of being a wuss, a hypocrite, a lowlife.

"He chose to play the game. He knew what the risks were," seemed to be the general theme.

Actually, he didn't, not really. The risks of football have been masked by a conspiracy of silence involving management, players and fans.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of bestselling books like "Blink," "Outliers" and "The Tipping Point," has studied the research for several years. He's convinced college football should be banned. Failing that, he says, the players should be paid.

"It's a bit much both to maim AND exploit college football players."

"Remember, the issue isn't concussions. It is 'repetitive subconcussive impact,'" he told Slate. "It is the cumulative effect of thousands of little hits that linemen and defensive backs … endure play after play."

But die-hard fans will argue that there's no real proof that Seau's concussions caused his suicide, or Duerson's or Easterling's either. And they rail at the "overreaction" of the NFL commissioner in penalizing the New Orleans Saints for offering "bounties" on opposing players, awarding thousands to the player who could injure a given opponent.

"It's part of the game," they chant in unison.

As indeed it is.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was a long-time columnist for The Des Moines Register. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Michael Williams May 18, 2012 | 9:33 a.m.

It's hard to tease out all the contributing factors, especially when some of the contributing factors are illegal....things like steroid use. I have no doubt, tho, that repetitive head-knocking is not a good thing.

Feats of male strength....going on even while we were still living in trees. And now females are involved, too, with things like boxing and football. No sport is immune or completely safe; hell, even "acceptable" sports like cycling involve 25 mph in a serious crowd with only a dorky helmet for protection.

Baseball, softball, hockey, rugby, soccer, football, lacrosse, diving, hurdles, pole vault, cycling, cross country, boxing, drag racing, motorcycle riding, NASCAR, caving, skydiving, rock climbing, scuba, boating, driving....hell, we could eliminate them all and still fall in the tub.

I'm of mixed emotions about those who now wish they had not played. It's hard for me to imagine any ADULT not understanding long-term risks in any sport with which they are familiar. It is only after the fame, glory, and money that many seek are gone do the regrets pile up. How many athletes today KNOW the risks yet choose to take them anyway in return for glory?

What sympathy is appropriate?

Kids, tho,.....different story. They DON'T understand risks, but the ADULTS sure should.

But even the kids cannot be completely protected...I know I invented several dangerous sports as a child, and my daughters did, too.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum May 18, 2012 | 12:29 p.m.

The reaction to Barney's interview is unfortunate (albeit predictable)-- most people aren't willing to question things that they've accepted as universally true (i.e. 'football good').

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