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Bob Ryan

Barbaric nature of football is troubling

OK, America, this is what you wanted. Deal with it.

Football is America’s unquestioned 21st century national pastime. The evidence is irrefutable.

More than just America’s most popular sport, football may very well be America’s true connective tissue. In a time of vast entertainment options, the Sunday football ritual (and let’s not forget Monday and Thursday evenings) may be America’s last great communal event.

Think about it. There is no other single activity — no specific movie, no specific television show, no specific show business act, and nothing taking place in any specific museum currently commanding the attention of more people, before, during, and after the games themselves — than the weekly offering of NFL games. It would be nice if it were politics, but a look at the turnouts for our elections tells you that, sadly, is not the case.

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Nope. Football says “America” to the world. What does that say about Us?

Football is a brutal, quasi-barbaric game. Its object is to hit. Its byproduct is to hurt. Hockey is a rough game, too, and it does involve hitting and being hit (unless your name was Wayne Gretzky). But hitting is not the object of the game. Football can likewise maintain that hitting is not the object of the game, either, that the object is to advance the oblong ball into a piece of real estate known as the end zone, or to kick said ball between tall pieces of whatever known as goal posts. We know better. There is hitting, and possible hurting, on every play. That’s the reason why most of its participants love it so. They relish the contact.

Oh, there is strategy, and lots of it. Deploying those 11 men on your side, be it on offense or defense, calls for a great deal of planning. Speculating on the next play call is part of the fun of being a spectator. Everyone has an opinion.

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But the fact is the result of 60 minutes of high-level football is carnage, both in the short and long run. Mounting evidence paints a grim picture for an astonishing number of the men who choose this activity as a way of making a living. It was bad enough when the expected consequence of playing football was a malfunctioning arm, shoulder or knee as you advanced into your 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. Now we know the greatest threat is neurological.

In the abstract, one might think America would be horrified. One might wonder how such a debilitating activity was even legal.

(This is where we all suppress our laughter.)

Full disclosure: I stand before you as an official enabler. Without trying to assert any bragging rights, I can say I go back far enough with this sport to remember when one-platoon football was in vogue. I saw the 1955 Army-Navy game. I was at Army-Notre Dame two years later when their series resumed. I rooted for the New York Giants and I can still see Mel Triplett dragging three Chicago Bears into the end zone in that glorious 47-7 triumph in the 1956 championship game. I was riveted to my TV set for the famous Giants-Colts 1958 overtime classic. I was at BC 41, Notre Dame 39. I was there for the Tuck Rule. I covered all three Patriots Super Bowl victories and enjoyed them immensely, especially the first one.

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I’ll stop. I promise.

So I have enjoyed football as a fan as far back as I can remember. It’s always been on my sports smorgasbord table.

But as I’ve gotten older I find myself troubled by the essential mentality of the game. It’s become harder and harder to accept the callousness of its passionate adherents, who seem to have no problem rationalizing the aforementioned carnage as simply part of the deal. I mean, there’s a lot to be said for football as an entertainment spectacle, but it simply does not speak well for American society that this vicious game is our sport of choice. Personally, if it were to go away, I’d be just fine. My sports smorgasbord table will still be groaning with goodies. I’d have my pigskin memories.

I realize this is a minority view.

With regard to the current issues, when it’s all said and done, yes, Roger Goodell has forfeited all credibility and thus must go. And then what? Football will continue. The moral outrage over the deviant behavior of so many of its participants will subside. Concussions will continue to occur (please, Wes, stop playing — immediately). Arms, shoulders, knees, and necks will continue to sustain permanent damage. Gambling will resume. Fantasy leagues will go on.

Most of all, players will play. No one can possibly enter this game unaware of the possible physical consequences, but people still want to play. If they don’t care what happens to themselves, why should we? That’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

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Patriots 41, Raiders 10. I told you I was an enabler.


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