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The Boston Globe

Sports

  

Bob Ryan

Football tests limits of our conscience

America has spoken. Professional football is our favorite sporting pursuit.

The NFL is King. The NFL is Emperor. The NFL is Untouchable.

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What does that say about us as a nation that we have chosen as our favorite sport a game that not only routinely maims and cripples its participants, but also leaves a disproportionate percentage of them with serious cognitive impairment?

We casually accept the notion that football is inherently violent, perhaps even borderline barbaric. It is a given that the careers of even the most gifted running backs are often extremely short, that after as few as three or four years of taking shots from today’s exceptionally athletic defenders, knees, shoulders and ankles are shattered.

The good news in many cases is that while their bodies may be battered, at least these people have suffered no brain damage.

Once upon a time, this might have been a facetious observation, but no longer. Mounting evidence demonstrates that anyone choosing to play football enters into complete caveat emptor territory. You clearly do so at your own physical risk.

An argument can be made that this is not new news, that football has always been risky. True enough, but it has never been as true to the degree it is now.

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The stakes are highest in the National Football League, of course, because that’s where the best of the best congregate. And make no mistake, the essential nature of professional football has changed more than the essential nature of baseball, basketball, or hockey. Simply put, football players are bigger, faster, more fit than ever before, and therefore produce more damaging collisions.

How drastic is the change? For years I had it in my head that in 1976, when the Steel Curtain Steelers were in the midst of their great run, there was but one man listed at 300 pounds on an NFL roster. Recently, however, I re-checked the available rosters and learned I was wrong. There were none.

Nowadays, every team has a dozen or more 300-pounders. Most of them shouldn’t be weighing anywhere near that, which is another matter entirely. But what’s even more relevant to this discussion is the fact that there are scores of 250-, 260-, 270-, and 280-pounders who run as fast, and therefore hit waaay harder, than the 210-, 220-, 230-, or 240-pounders occupying those same positions in years past.

I could put together all-star teams in baseball, basketball, and hockey from the 1960s that I know could compete with the best players today. With the exception of the very best running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers, and the occasional defensive back, that is a laughable concept in football. Vince Lombardi’s Packers were Lilliputians compared with any NFL team today.

Football is about seizing territory while hitting and being hit. There is no room for gentleness or finesse in football. Players have been trained for generations to ignore injury, to soldier on, regardless. The sainted Lombardi told us that if you can sit, you can stand, and if you can stand, you can walk, etc. “You can’t make the club from the tub’’ is a well-known pigskin phrase. Football players really are amazingly tough; it’s no myth. But in far too many cases, “tough’’ has been a synonym for “foolhardy.’’

We all grew up with the notion that football players got “dinged.’’ Every player of note has a banquet story about the time either a teammate or himself performed some superhuman feat while barely being able to recall his name. It’s always been good for a laugh. I mean, you know, “That’s football.’’

It’s no longer funny.

We now know that those “dings’’ were minor concussions. We now know that those concussions, minor and major, can have a cumulative effect on a man’s brain. We now know that a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy is disturbingly prevalent in the brains of retired football players.

We have been able to attach the name of a prominent player such as Dave Duerson to the situation, and now we await an autopsy on the much beloved, much admired and, quite obviously, greatly troubled, successfully suicidal Junior Seau to see if he, too, was a victim of CTE.

Understand this: I am a lifelong fan of football. I am well-versed in its history. I revel in the collegiate pageantry. I like my NFL Sundays as much as the next guy. I could be a convincing devil’s advocate to cite the drama inherent in a game-winning drive, or a game-saving goal line stand, as the apex of sport drama. I rate the 2001 Snow Game for the AFC championship as one of the top five sporting events I have ever covered.

But you knew there was going to be a but - the basic mentality of the game has troubled me for a long, long time. For me it’s been like voting for a candidate whose policies I endorse but whose personality repels me, a true hold-your-nose-while-you-pull-the-lever affair. I guess you could call me a football enabler.

I wonder how anyone can coach this game. I can understand the strategic fascination it can have for a man such as Bill Belichick. But to coach the sport, a man must develop a very hard outer shell. Every coach knows when he is sending in someone who shouldn’t be out there. How does a Tony Dungy, who is open about his spirituality, rationalize participation in a sport that maims, cripples, and, yes, kills? I’ve never understood that.

The evidence that football is inherently unsafe is there for all to see. Kurt Warner, a borderline Hall of Famer, now says he doesn’t want his children to play. If Junior Seau, a football player’s football player if ever there was one, is found to be another CTE victim, will that cause even one American sports fan to reject the NFL on a moral basis?

If so, that would be one down and many, many millions to go. How many lives must be ruined before America finds itself another game to love?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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