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Bob Ryan

Would we be better off without the NFL?

The NFL has reached a level of popularity that no one sport can seem to match.

David Goldman/AP

The NFL has reached a level of popularity that no one sport can seem to match.

OK, America. You’ve now had your football fix for the 2012-13 season. You happy now? Think you can make it to, oh, I dunno, the OTAs?

Football is your preferred game. You’ve made that quite clear. But is it possible you might wish to reconsider?

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Suppose you were new to this culture and someone described a game to you, a game that was essentially barbaric and brutal, a game in which the participants were at risk of serious permanent injury, both physical and neurological. Would your first instinct be, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to see that?” Or would it be, “That’s legal?”

I do not hate football. But I do not love it, either. To me, there are better games — baseball and basketball being two of them. But while I do not love football, I can certainly appreciate it. It has to be 60 years since I went to my first football game, and I am reasonably well-versed in the history of the sport in both its college and pro versions. I can root, root, root for the home team with the best of ’em.

Appreciating football means being impressed by the athleticism of the great players and by football’s own brand of inherent situational drama. I can easily become invested in a game-clinching touchdown drive or a vital goal-line stand (See, Ravens, Baltimore, Super Bowl XLVII).

I would argue that football today is more strategically complex and fascinating than at any point in its existence. I would further argue that during the playoffs just concluded we witnessed a truly impressive number of brilliant, acrobatic catches by the greatest collection of pass receivers the game has ever known, against the best set of defensive backs we’ve ever known.

For any sports fan, it was all quite compelling.

But my question is simple: Is football, as entertaining as it can be, worth it? Or would we as a society be better off without it?

I believe that millions of American football fans live in denial. There are disturbing facts about football at their disposal they choose to ignore. Football maims people. Football can cause severe neurological damage.

I speak not of theory. I speak of fact.

This being true, how can any serious person support such an activity?

Even its most ardent practitioners are questioning football’s worth. Was there ever a tougher player than Rodney Harrison? He dished it out and he took it and he never complained. Or, apparently, thought much about what the game was doing to him.

Until now.

Now Rodney Harrison, who is being well paid to analyze football by NBC, says he is “scared to death” about what might happen to him as he approaches his 40s and 50s. Like many others, he has been paying attention to the plight of the Dave Duersons, Junior Seaus, and Jim McMahons, the prematurely deceased or prematurely failing players who paid or are paying the price for too many hits — especially hits to the head.

Like an innumerable number of his colleagues and foes, Rodney Harrison says he could not possibly annotate the number of concussions he sustained in pursuit of football excellence, now that he knows that all those times he had his “bell rung” he had, in fact, suffered a concussion.

All those bell-ringings add up to trouble for all those tough guys. And forget about all those shoulders, knees, ankles, hips, elbows, arms, and fingers that have made all those relatively young men into cripples.

They inhabit an ultramacho world. Injuries are part of the deal; they all sign on knowing that. Most of them have been willing to live with the ruined shoulders, knees, ankles, hips, elbows, arms, and fingers, but in the old days, they never worried much about their brains, because, well, weren’t they wearing helmets? They had never been told about CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Well, now they know. And now we know that helmets are a large part of the problem. Turns out the old jokes were misguided: Football really was safer when they played without helmets.

So the move is on to make football safer. Really? Is that what the football-loving public really wants? They’d better be careful what they wish for.

Football has never been safe. It never will be safe. Let’s table that discussion right now. The object of football is to hit, the harder the better. And the people doing the hitting are stronger and faster than ever before. The physics of this game are daunting.

Lombardi’s Packers and Noll’s Steel Curtain Steelers, winners of a combined nine NFL championships/Super Bowls from 1961-80, would look like Division 3 teams compared with the gargantuans we now have. Those old guys were tough, all right. These new guys are just as tough-minded and they could bench press those old guys with one hand. Today’s collisions are far more severe than the ones in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

The NFL is trying to eliminate hits to the head. The NFL is trying to protect quarterbacks and “defenseless receivers.” The NFL is trying to strike a balance between aggressive, hard-hitting (but not too hard-hitting) football and savagery. That’s very noble. I doubt that’s what the hard-core football fan wants.

No one will say it, but what the NFL is moving toward is a game that is incrementally closer to two-hand touch than the game we’ve always known. The NFL now just wants to emphasize the, shall we say, artistry of the game at the expense of its natural violence. No one really cares about the safety of the grunts up front or the DBs. They want to make the game safer for the playmakers.

Oops, I haven’t mentioned the lawsuits.

The premise of the lawsuits is that the plaintiffs maintain the league had information identifying the concussion danger and withheld the information. The lawsuits are a practical matter that concerns the league greatly.

But let’s get back to the fans. Much like boxing, football is a very, very difficult game to support on a moral basis. How callous, or stupid, must one be in order to select as one’s favorite sport an activity that is guaranteed to have an adverse effect on the overall physical and neurological health of a disproportionate number of its participants?

I have always been fascinated when I encounter a football coach I instantly like. I am always tempted to ask how he can rationalize his involvement in a sport that routinely destroys young bodies. And this was long before I ever heard of a phenomenon known as CTE. But I have never had the nerve to pop the question.

I confess to being hypocritical on this matter. Despite everything I’ve just said, as long as football is placed in front of me, I will continue to watch it. As I said, I appreciate its skill and drama. But if they stopped playing it in the next five minutes, it wouldn’t bother me at all. Six months of baseball and six months of basketball sound pretty good to me.

Am I alone?

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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