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Bob Ryan

Football a game of inherent conflict

It’s an autumn Sunday and we Americans are happy.

We have a full afternoon and evening of professional football ahead of us.

This is our sport. Oh, those Canadians play something approximating it, but it’s not the same. Twelve men? A 25-yard end zone? Multiple men in motion? Three downs? A, what, rouge? Are they serious? That’s not football.

We do export it some, and the Commish wants desperately to make the NFL a part of Europe’s regular sporting diet, and once that is accomplished, I’m sure he’d like to get things rolling in Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia, as well. But I doubt that’s ever going to happen. Football should be pretty much exclusively ours for generations to come.


Well, maybe.

For that to happen, we will need players, and there is one thing Roger Goodell may not have considered.

The mothers of America could shut down football today.

I’m not saying they’re going to, but they could. The mothers of America could band together and say, “Uh-uh, no way. My boy’s not playing football. And that’s all there is to it.”

We are in an era of concussion consciousness, concussion awareness, concussion this and concussion that. It is being drilled into us that there is a grave risk involved in blows to the head, consequences that may not manifest themselves until many years in the future.

Those who choose to play football can no longer say they weren’t warned. They can no longer refer to being “dinged” from a blow to the head. A “ding” is now understood to be a concussion, however minor. And once someone has been so concussed, one is now increasingly susceptible to further concussions.

Many a former player who can admit to being “dinged” more times than he can count now needs to write things down so he won’t forget them, things like directions to the post office or pharmacy or favorite local bar. Many of these former players are in their 40s.


Football is a brutal, almost barbaric game. It is a game in which ridiculously large men, pumped up or drugged up or gorged upward of 30 percent more than the weight they should be safely carrying, smash into each other upward of 80 times a game at a point in the field known as the “line of scrimmage.”

The men on defense are in search of someone known as the ballcarrier, their supposed aim being to get him to the ground, but the real aim, according to what they’ve been taught from Pop Warnerhood, to hit him hard enough to dislodge him from the football.

The result is carnage. Everyone gets hurt, sooner or later. Ninety percent or more of the dialogue focuses on the most severe injuries, those occurring to the knee, shoulder, and, now more than ever, the head. There is a constant threat of both extreme physical and neurological damage.

But that’s not the whole story. In time, every participant sustains damage to a finger, or forearm, or elbow, or back, or neck. It is inevitable. Those who play football at a high level pay a physical price for it eventually.

When asked if they’d do it all over again, knowing what they know now, most of them say yes. They are a different breed. That being the case, should we feel sorry for them? I’m just asking.


There is much hue and cry nowadays that the game is going soft. That a safety-conscious NFL is a Girlyman NFL. Defensive backs are moaning that if they can no longer deliver indiscriminate blows to the opponent’s head, they must “go low,” i.e. hit someone in the knee, in order to bring him down. This is an insult to intelligence.

Were any of these supposed football players ever taught to tackle? All half these guys know is how to launch themselves at somebody or shoulder-roll someone. I’ll bet Pat Fischer never launched himself or shoulder-rolled anyone in his life.

Fischer was a great 170-pound safety who actually put his shoulder into a ballcarrier and hit him in the midsection. In other words, he actually tackled someone. Perhaps Roger Goodell should send him around to conduct a few clinics.

But I digress.

The simple truth is that football can never be made safe. Even if the essential “kill” mentality were changed, football can never be made safe. And it has never been more dangerous than it is now, thanks to a combination of there being larger, quicker, more lethal people delivering the blows and the lingering mentality brought to the game by coaches and players who cannot or will not change.

Football has an enormous appeal to many people who are borderline psychopaths in a manner that no other sport — and this includes the very virile sport of hockey — does not.


I come to you as an enabler, and I suspect there are many more out there like me. We are essentially troubled by the casual acceptance our society has of a sport that really and truly maims people. That football is America’s current sport of choice reflects poorly on us as a people.

But we enablers also have lived with this sport as long as we can remember and we understand it and appreciate its history. We enjoy a good game. And we know nothing we say or do will have an effect on the product. I’m going to guess that Super Bowl XLVIII will take place on Feb. 2, 2014.

But Super Bowl LXXIV? Mothers of America, it’s up to you.

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