Counting up casualties on NFL holiday
Football remains America's game, and today, Super Bowl Sunday, remains a de facto national holiday.
The Super Bowl remains the country's most-watched and bet-upon event.
None of that is likely to change soon.
But there are rumblings through the land. There are harsh realities that won't go away.
There are reasons to believe that our national love affair with the gridiron, if far from over, has at least reached a sober middle age.
The New Republic magazine published an interview with President Obama last month to promote a redesign of its print and online publications.
Sandwiched between questions on gun control and the Middle East was this:
"Sticking with the culture of violence, but on a much less dramatic scale: I'm wondering if you, as a fan, take less pleasure in watching football, knowing the impact that the game takes on its players."
To which the leader of the free world said:
"I'm 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.
"And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.
In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, 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."
People determined to be provoked were, of course. Some right-wing media outlets portrayed Obama's comments as political, or more precisely as nanny-state liberalism.
But what was actually noteworthy was how unprovocative the president's comments were.
They were a more articulate, more thought-out version of what most people, and surely most parents, are at least thinking.
We all now know the evidence, in general terms:
The incidence of injury, and traumatic injury, is greater in football than any other sport commonly played in America, according to 2011 (most recent available) data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Studies of NFL players suggest playing football long enough, and certainly playing it at the high-speed-collision level of the NFL, has a detrimental effect of length and quality of life and brain function.
The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy released results last month of a study of the brains of seven dead NFL football players, including John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Tom McHale.
All the players had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive disease, connected with head trauma, that destroys brain cells. All the players, the study said, "had the brain make-up of an 80-year-old man with onset dementia."
After NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide last year, an autopsy found Seau had CTE.
His family is now suing helmet manufacturer Riddell and the NFL, in part, for its "glorification" of violence.
A group now of 3,000-plus former NFL players has joined a similar class-action lawsuit against the league.
The NFL spent years in denial about all this, but in recent years has spent tens of millions of dollars to commission studies of player health.
It has attempted to legislate away violence by changing the rules of the game with penalties for dangerous hits and fines and suspensions for egregious or repeat offenders.
Of course, the players don't like that, either. In truth, it's hard to be entirely sympathetic to the players when their position on this issue is some sloppy combination of suing the league over violence, griping about rules designed to cut down violence and acknowledging that if they had to do it over again, with full knowledge of the health risks, they would.
Maybe it's not about the players, though.
Baltimore Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard got some buzz last week when he said that, "Thirty years from now, I don't think [the NFL] will be in existence.
"I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going, where they want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else, there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it."
Got that? The fans are going to get fed up with it.
We're all clear, in the era of hypodermic needles in the butt and deep antler spray under the tongue, on the lengths athletes will go to stay rich and famous and in the game.
But they go there because of us. The riches and fame come from us.
To what extent does that carry with it culpability?
To what extent does sitting down this evening, with our beer and wings and friends and family and prop bets and Twitter feeds, carry political and even moral weight?
And when we do it anyway (and we will), will we be witnessing the beginning of the end of something, a grand American thing, at least in its current, full-blooded form?
Nah. It's the NFL, man. Bulletproof.
Once upon a time, didn't they say that about boxing?n
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