3:54 PM EST, January 29, 2013
President Barack Obama and Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed have something in common.
Both love the game of football but would be hesitant to expose a son to its physical dangers.
"I am a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football," said the president in an interview with The New Republic.
"I'm with Obama," said Mr. Reed. "I have a son. I am not forcing football on my son. ... All I can do is say, 'Son, I played it so you don't have to.'"
During a Super Bowl week press conference in New Orleans, Mr. Reed noted that the dangers of the game had now captured the president's attention: "When you've got the president talking about it, you got something."
Indeed, the dangers of football — particularly the head trauma caused by repeated hits over a career — have been Topic A this season. The suicides of players such as former San Diego Charger Junior Seau, who was found to have of brain damage; and the suit against the National Football League by 4,000 former players who claim the league knew of the link between concussion and brain damage and failed to tell the players, have made it so.
In addition, recent science has found that chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the brain disease linked to concussion, can now be diagnosed before death.
Even the location of this year's Super Bowl in New Orleans has brought the spotlight to the issue of concussive brain injury. Before the season, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended the New Orleans Saints' general manager, head coach, two assistant coaches and four current and former players for all or part of the season for reportedly paying players bounties for big hits and hits that took players out of the game. The team was fined heavily and forfeited draft choices.
The move was seen in some quarters as a dramatic effort to prove to some future judge and jury that the league was pro-active when it came to player safety. (Mr. Goodell lifted the suspension of popular head coach Sean Payton just before everybody arrived for Super Bowl week festivities.)
And one of New Orleans' football heroes, Tom Dempsey, a record-setting kicker who nonetheless loved to hit, is suffering from dementia, probably caused by those hits; he has been featured in pre-Super Bowl coverage.
It is hard to imagine America without football, but it is not hard to imagine how its hold on the country might be weakened. It would start with mothers overruling fathers and lots of little boys playing soccer or running cross-country instead of donning pads and helmets. Colleges, fearing lawsuits, would drop the game, cutting off the NFL's feeder system.
It is those players for whom Mr. Obama said he is most concerned. "NFL players have a union, they're grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies," he noted.
College players, he said, have no recourse. "That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about," he said.
Advertisers, alarmed at the suicides of former players or the heartbreaking stories of their early mental decrepitude or the vivid replays of their injuries, might find other, less offensive, platforms for their products.
Not everyone is impressed with all this. San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh, who played 14 years in the league, was flip about any shrinking of the talent pool. He has a 4-month-old son, he said, and predicted there would be less competition for him when he gets to high school. His brother, Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, told a Sun reporter he disagrees with President Obama and would not discourage young athletes from playing the game.
Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said the tension between coaches, who want ever bigger, stronger and faster players, and the league, which wants to choreograph the speed and angle of the hits, creates a conundrum that could be catastrophic for a player or the game.
"And that means you're going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees," Mr. Pollard told columnist Clark Judge of CBS Sports. "The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field."
And then there is our role in all of this. The spectators.
President Obama predicted changes in the game that will make it safer. Indeed, rule changes on kickoffs and hits to the head reduced the number of concussions by 12.5 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the league. But there were still 190 of them.
"In some cases, that may be a little bit less exciting," said President Obama, "but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much."
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