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Pete Flowers
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Can Football Survive?

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The tragic death last week of retired NFL player Junior Seau has added fuel to the debate about the safety of the sport of football. While the issue of concussive injuries is front and center – and at the heart of lawsuits filed by more than 1,000 former NFL players – the real issue goes beyond the pro ranks. Simply put, is football, by its very nature, too dangerous a sport to play on any level?

It wasn’t all that long ago a hard hit to a player’s head was brushed off as “having his bell rung.” We now know a single concussion can have long-lasting, even devastating, consequences to an athlete, and safeguards are slowly being put into place. (Of course, this knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a public distaste for that kind of play. To this day, hard hits are compiled for TV sports highlight reels, and videos of the most vicious hits are top attractions on YouTube.) The question remains whether any safeguards can adequately protect football players from the effects of concussive injuries.

It seems doubtful; football is a contact sport, and the contact that happens, happens at high speed between players charging at one another. The human brain isn’t designed to absorb that sort of severe blow to the skull. What’s worse is studies are now suggesting it’s the cumulative effect of repeated impacts, not necessarily severe ones, a football player will sustain over a career that cause the most damage.

By the time a player has made it to the pro ranks, he most likely has had a successful college career, preceded by an outstanding high school one, and usually years of pee-wee or youth league play before that. That’s a lot of hits to absorb even before joining the big leagues. Which begs the question: Are the hits in the NFL the cause of the most severe concussive injuries, or just more in a long line that started when a boy first strapped on shoulder pads?

Although many, if not most, high school athletic associations have comprehensive procedures to detect and deal with player concussions, the same rules may not be in place for the youth leagues. Two more factors hindering treatment of concussive injuries are the natural tendencies of young athletes to lie about an injury to avoid being benched, and of amateur coaches whose advice to injured players consists of “Walk it off.”

Unfortunately, more and more evidence seems to be showing that even the best of intentions can’t eliminate the accumulation of blows to the head of a young football player, nor the increasing threat to his health.

We love football on almost any level; college or pro football games jam stadiums and command huge TV audiences. Here in Chicago, the Bears vs. Green Bay game is cause for all industry to come to a halt. Lately though, I’ve watched with a sense of unease, and this thought cannot be suppressed: Are the men at Soldier Field shortening their lives by playing the game we all love? Worse yet is the thought that when a high school boy says he’s dying to play football, he may be correct.

No one is calling for a ban on football, but as we discover more about the devastating effect the head blows that come with the game have on the health of the players, we have to start the discussion about how to make it safer to play. Even if it means giving up the highlight reel.