Football fighting for its life

At issue is the fact that, with present equipment and rules, football is a terminal condition. The constant head-butting, in both practice and games, in time fills the brain of a retired player with plaques that cause dementia.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell got the message on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Football is fighting for its life.

This is not something you'll read on the sports page. Sports reporters depend on the success of the businesses they cover for their livelihood. Most can't, or won't, take delivery of the idea they're really covering Rollerball (above, the 1975 trailer).

The loudest squawk came from liberal Rep. Maxine Waters, which might make it ignorable save for the fact her husband Sidney Williams was in the NFL from 1964-69. She went right after the league's antitrust exemption, on which its prosperity is based.

At issue is the fact that, with present equipment and rules, football is a terminal condition . The constant head-butting, in both practice and games, in time fills the brain of a retired player with plaques that cause dementia.

The game faced a similar crisis about 100 years ago. President Theodore Roosevelt solved it, in part, through rules changes that resulted in the creation of today's NCAA.

Trouble is yesterday's hearing focused only on concussion, not on the smaller blows that research shows are the real problem.

Some coaches have tried responding, cutting back on hitting during practice. But if the methods of coaches like North Carolina's Butch Davis don't also deliver victories (the Heels are now 4-3 with Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College still ahead) they won't be copied.

Goodell seems to hope that new helmets and rule changes will solve the problem, but he is also listening to people like University of Michigan researcher David Weir, whose league-sponsored study concluded there is no problem.

Note to the Commissioner. Weir deals with surveys -- he's not a doctor.

Any reform effort will have to fight an uphill battle against both the NFL, colleges and high schools, and the media which covers them. While Ann McKee, whose research examining brains of ex-footballers was highlighted by The New Yorker, did testify yesterday, her findings were relegated to a single sentence at the end of a New York Times story.

But there are people listening. American football players are now coming, overwhelmingly, from poorer neighborhoods in the South and Texas. Suburban kids are into soccer, which has its own problems but could solve them with the introduction of helmets, especially in lower leagues.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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