Amid growing concern about long-term brain injuries afflicting football players young and old, President Obama split the difference between his enthusiasm as the nation’s first sports fan and his responsibility as its highest-profile health advocate. In a recent interview with The New Republic, he went as far as saying, “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” That sentiment is understandable; millions of other parents are facing the same dilemma. Yet Obama let football leagues at all levels off the hook too easily, saying the sport will probably “change gradually” to “reduce some of the violence.”
The toll from football-related brain injuries is evident in the suicide of former Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, in the legions of players suffering from premature dementia, and in the more than 3,000 retired players who are accusing the National Football League of hiding information about the potential damage of concussions. There’s a reason the players’ union this week gave Harvard $100 million to study the health of retired players.
And the sport probably won’t mend itself on its own, because so many people — from pro players and owners to college presidents to youth coaches — are invested emotionally and financially in the status quo. For that reason, political leaders, especially the president, can play a helpful role in pressing football officials from the NFL down to Pop Warner for radical improvements. Any reduction in brain injuries needs to be dramatic, not gradual.