NFL Season Kicks Off With New Safety Rules

Guests

Alan Schwarz, national correspondent, The New York Times
Buzz Bissinger, sports columnist, The Daily Beast

A growing body of evidence shows that concussions and other head inquires can lead to brain damage and the early onset of dementia. The NFL hopes new rules for the 2011-2012 season will help reduce those injuries, but many fans argue that violence is just part of the game.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When the president's speech to Congress on jobs got moved to tonight, the White House set the time to avoid having to compete with the opening game of the professional football season. It's the Saints and the Packers, and the NBC affiliates in Green Bay and Milwaukee will skip the president's address to run the pregame show.

There will be some changes when that game starts tonight. The most obvious is that the kick-off has been moved up five yards. So we'll probably see more balls kicked through the end zone and fewer kickoff returns, which is one of the most exciting and one of the most violent plays in football.

And the subtext of every game is the mounting evidence that the violence at the heart of the game damages the brains of players, and that accumulated damage can lead to dementia and early death.

The rules changes are designed to reduce the risk, but the league and its players are reluctant to change the essential nature of the game. If you're a fan, would changes to protect players kill the game? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll conclude or TOTN Freshman Read series with author Jared Diamond and his book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." But first the future of the NFL, and joining us now from our bureau in New York is Alan Schwarz, New York Times national correspondent. Alan, nice to have you back on the program.

ALAN SCHWARZ: And it's very good to be here, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And is there any doubt any longer on the medical evidence here?

SCHWARZ: Well, there's no question that there is a link between the violence that takes place, the collisions that take place on a football field, particularly at the NFL level, and subsequent neurological damage. Now, the strength of that link is something that still needs to be established, but there's no question that there are more former NFL players suffering from or experiencing cognitive decline and full-blown dementia than there should be. There's about three to five times that.

Now, to what extent one has to play NFL football to have these problems, how long someone has to play, what kind of genetic makeup one must have in order to have this happen, these things have not been determined. But clearly there's something up, and the league has decided to take a look at it.

CONAN: And medical journals or the newspapers are not the only place, the only venues where this is being discussed. It's in court already, former players suing the NFL and equipment manufacturers for failing to deal with this directly.

SCHWARZ: Well, there are various suits, some reaching further than others, if you get my drift. I think the question is, you know, what did you know, and when did you know it. And that's very debatable. I think those of us who have spent a long time studying not only the evidence but the history of the unfolding of the evidence, there's a point at which it becomes reasonable to think that the employer should have told the employees.

However, a lot of people want that to start a lot earlier than I think is reasonable. So we'll see. It's for a jury and a judge to decide.

CONAN: And the rule - there was a contract dispute over the summer, a new labor agreement worked out. It includes efforts to mitigate the opportunities for repeated head injuries, fewer - well, no more two-a-days in the summertime, for example. We mentioned the kickoff rule. Receivers in the open field, so-called - who can't defend themselves, they will be getting greater protections.

SCHWARZ: Yeah, I mean look, the game has been getting, quote-unquote, "safer" since Teddy Roosevelt's day, or at least they've been making it - they've been addressing certain type of safety risks. Now, unfortunately, certain things that have been done in the idea of mitigating some of the dangers have actually made the game more dangerous, for example: helmets.

The thicker helmets became, the more protective they became for the fracturing of skulls, which was what the main thing they were designed to do was. Well, the problem is, is now people now use their heads as weapons because they are so well-protected from immediate damage, the brain sloshes inside the skull enough that over time there can be some real, permanent damage.

And so it's - they're really trying to find the sweet spot of what level of violence, you know, satiates the public's desire for it and balancing that with, you know, do we really want to be maiming some of the people who play this sport, particularly those who are children.

CONAN: Joining us now is Buzz Bissinger, and Buzz of course is - the author of "Friday Night Lights" and a sports columnist now for The Daily Beast. He's with us from a studio in Philadelphia. Nice to have you back on the program.

BUZZ BISSINGER: Thanks, Neal. Hi, Alan, how are you?

SCHWARZ: I'm good, Buzz, how are you?

BISSINGER: I'm good.

CONAN: And Buzz, last year during the playoffs, you wrote: Football has a choice to make, either acceptance or abolishment.

BISSINGER: Well, I mean, I think you look at the new rules that are coming in, first of all, you're going to need another referee to decide, you know, what's an illegal hit, what isn't. I think it's really going to curtail the ability of defensive backs, who, whether we like to admit it or not, are kind of the kamikazes of the team.

They're very exciting to watch, and I would argue look, anyone who played football 50 years ago, I think you could assume they would know that when you hit someone in the head, helmet against helmet, it's probably going to cause some damage down the road.

Now, improvements have been made, but I think you're going to reach a point where you dilute the violence of the game, which is inherently violent, which is of appeal to people, where it may not be as attractive. But the NFL is such a juggernaut now in terms of TV ratings, 29 of the top 30 rated shows were NFL football games, it's going to take a while.

But I've talked to Alan about this, and I've talked to others. I don't want to misspeak for Alan, but I think the greater concern really is at the youth level, is to teach them the right way. These NFL players, they're big boys. They know what they're getting into, and it's an occupational hazard, you know, like race car driving is an occupational hazard.

The NHL, I think, tried to cut down on concussions through, you know, referees calling egregious hits, and I think they had more this year than last year. It's going to be very, very hard to legislate, and, you know, there could be injuries to a defensive back if he kind of pulls up, and who knows what's going to happen there?

CONAN: Alan Schwartz, it's - people, and Buzz is among them, but so many others, say look, you poll the players, and they say we want the game to stay the way it is. It's the way we were brought up to play it. It's the right way to play it.

SCHWARZ: Well, that's fine. I mean, if the NFL players want to get paid a lot of money to assume these risks, who's to say they should be denied the opportunity to do that? They're grown men making grown men's decisions. There's no question that the coverage that we provided at the New York Times and continue to provide has focused far more on the fact that what happens at the NFL level does affect what happens at the youth level, far more than frankly it probably should.

The youth level should be able to legislate its own new rules and safety procedures without having to mimic the big boys upstairs, but that's a subject for another show.

I think that we've always treated this as a public health concern, and so when you speak - when one speaks of, you know, the appeal of the violence, there's no question that many people like to watch these guys ram into each other at full speed. But my guess is that the parents of those people are far less enthusiastic about it.

BISSINGER: Well, that's not my experience in high school football in Texas. It was just the opposite, Alan, I've got to tell you. They love to hit...

SCHWARZ: It was 23 years ago, before they received any sort of information that we have now.

BISSINGER: I still they think they love the hits. They're proud of their kids when they hit. That's what they're going to be taught. It may be different at the Pop Warner level. Now granted, I'm talking about one state. They're not going to legislate hitting out of the game of high school football in Texas. Hitting is what it's about, and it is exciting. Otherwise, we would play rugby.

SCHWARZ: I'm not denying that. However, do you realize that the only place in American life where it is okay to crush a child in the head is if he is holding a football?

BISSINGER: What about hockey?

SCHWARZ: You can't hit somebody in the head. It's illegal.

BISSINGER: Yeah, but I think there are probably more head injuries in hockey. Aren't the most injuries in any sport in soccer, in youth soccer?

SCHWARZ: No, no, not even close.

BISSINGER: Well, according to books, there are more injuries in soccer, not head injuries, there are more injuries in soccer than in any other sport. But fine, then get rid of the game. Then get rid of the game because you know what, it's a violent game, and you're going to have injuries if kids pull up. You're still going to have concussions, and even you say...

SCHWARZ: Of course you are.

BISSINGER: ...the link has still not been definitively proven.

SCHWARZ: No, no, no, no, the link has been proven, the extent of the link, the strengths of the link...

BISSINGER: The extent of the link. Well, yeah, well that's pretty important, the strength of the link. Of course these guys are going to get more head injuries than the average person because they're playing football, and, as you say, they're wearing helmets. That's not revelatory.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll go to Jim(ph), and Jim's with us from Cookeville in Tennessee.

JIM: Yeah, I played football, high school, college, and I pay for it every day. I wish I'd never played. And if it was up to me, they'd ban the game. There's no reason at all to have little kids out there running around, hitting each other and hurting each other. And in the NFL, yeah they get paid for it, and I used to avidly watch the game, but every time I see some superb athlete being carried off crippled or injured, it just disgusts me, and that's really how I feel about football now.

SCHWARZ: I'd like to ask this gentleman a question. Sir, do you have any residual injuries from your football career, particularly in college?

JIM: Absolutely. I've received concussions. I don't really have any kind of problems with the concussions, but both my knees are blown out, my shoulder is blown out, my back is hurt.

SCHWARZ: Does it affect your ability to work?

JIM: You know, I played injured. The coaches didn't care if I was hurt. They kept playing me.

SCHWARZ: Well, I have a question. Does it affect your ability to work?

JIM: Yes, it does.

SCHWARZ: Yeah, and you don't get worker's comp, do you?

JIM: I mean, I'm still working. I'm still working, but I go home and rub myself down every night.

SCHWARZ: Yeah because college athletes and high school athletes do not receive worker's compensation...

BISSINGER: Because it's an occupational risk. But I think that guy's making a perfect point: Ban it, because forget concussions. Arthritis, knee injuries, people walking with canes, people not being able to walk, it is rampant in football, and that gentleman makes a very good point. He says he played. He says he wished he had not played. Ban it. Get rid of it or accept it for what it is.

SCHWARZ: See, I don't agree. I think that football - when you talk about it, and you talk about football - and Buzz and I have talked about this before - in my opinion, football or football in quotes does not exist, or it certainly does not exist the way that a building or a tree exists.

Football is a series of actions and behaviors that manifest themselves from a set of rules that adults devise and supervise. It can be whatever the adults want it to be. Was it not football when there was head-slapping and chop blocks? Of course it was. It will be whatever we decide it will be. It doesn't need to be banned.

BISSINGER: But then the game becomes a diluted - and it becomes very, very different, and I still don't think you will ever get away that the object of point A to hit point B as hard as they possibly can. And that's why it's in stadiums, and that's why it's gladiatorial, and that's why people like it.

CONAN: And why $9 billion is part of the game, too. Jim, thank you very much for the call. We'll continue our conversation with Buzz Bissinger and Alan Schwartz in just a moment. And Emmitt Smith will join us. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When the NFL rolled out new rules last season to cut down on helmet-to-helmet hits, fan reaction was mixed. Just over 60 percent in one Rasmussen poll said the changes were good for the sport. Some 30 percent said it wasn't. The rest were unsure.

The regular season kicks off tonight, and there will be more new rules designed to protect players. If you're a fan, will increased changes to protect players kill the game? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Alan Schwarz, national correspondent for the New York Times, author of the book "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics", and Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, author of "Friday Night Lights" and "Three Nights in August." And in a few minutes, Emmitt Smith, the long-time Dallas Cowboys running back and Hall-of-Famer and one-time "Dancing with the Stars" champion, will join us.

Let's see if we can get to some emails, and this from Rob(ph). He writes: Without making these changes, the NFL opens itself to being sued out of existence. I'd rather have a less-violent and unfortunately less-exciting game than no game at all. And Alan Schwartz, is that a direction these lawsuits could eventually take?

SCHWARZ: Well, I think that the league will get sued whether it changes rules or not because what they chose to do for about three years was to deny the existence of evidence that tied football with permanent brain problems. So they are on the hook for that whether they like it or not.

I think that they - look, I'm the guy who has been blamed for a lot of this stuff, and the league has made some proactive moves, and they're talking about making more proactive moves. I do think that - we're talking about this new kick-off rule, where all they're doing is moving it up five yards and giving the kamikaze guys five fewer yards to run - I predict on this show today that in five years there will be no kickoffs as we know them today.

I think it will be a free kick, like a punt, and you will not have guys running 20 yards headlong into each other. I think it will just change. It happens every year in every sport.

BISSINGER: That to me is the problem, and look, when I wrote "Friday Night Lights," not to go back 20 years in time, when you are on the sidelines now, and you've probably done this, it is an incredibly violent game. And that's when you feel it, when you hear it, when you see the hits. If they banned it, it would be fine with me, but if you're going to get rid of what is exciting, which is a kickoff, and a kickoff return and a guy going 100 yards, and one of these kamikazes, if it's a legal hit, I mean that's an integral part of the game.

And I think this is the problem you're going to have. I don't want a free kick if there's football. I don't think many people out there want a free kick. And you look at these new rules, a lot of them make sense. They really should add another referee.

There's going to be a lot of judgment calls. There's going to be a lot of arguments. There's going to be a lot of this. There's going to be a lot of that. But if you get rid of kickoffs, then I think you are getting into the core game. As Alan has pointed out, there are no more head slaps - which I kind of liked, actually...

SCHWARZ: I feel like giving you one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BISSINGER: And the game did not suffer. But one of the famous hits of all time, and I don't know if it would be legal, was when Lawrence Taylor basically broke Joe Theismann's leg.

SCHWARZ: No, all he was doing was hanging on - no, he was just hanging on top of him, and another player...

Well, you know, they would say he was unprotected. He was defenseless, he was this, he was that.

No, it wasn't that at all. It was another guy's leg wrapped around and hit him in the wrong spot and collapsed his leg like a little tin can. I mean, there's no question - I mean, I think the one to ask about, really, and I almost thought you were going to say it, Buzz, was Bednarik's hit on Gifford, our old pen friend, Chuck Bednarik.

Look, it happens every year in football. People have been saying, oh, it won't be football anymore, since Teddy's Roosevelt's day.

BISSINGER: Do you really thing the game will the same without - well, wait, I mean, people were dying. It was a slightly - do you think the game will be the same without kickoffs? Do you really think that one of the most exciting plays of...

SCHWARZ: Absolutely...

BISSINGER: Hey...

SCHWARZ: I'll miss Devin Hester - I will trade Devin Hester runbacks for Eric LaGrand being able to walk.

BISSINGER: You're not - do you think that with these rules, you're going to prevent arthritis and problems to your knees?

SCHWARZ: No, no, no, Eric Grand is a quadriplegic because he didn't know how to tackle, and he ran headlong into another player.

BISSINGER: Are you going to prevent arthritis? Are you going to prevent problems to your knees?

SCHWARZ: No, we all take risks. Hey, my kid took a risk walking to school today.

CONAN: My risk is that I have to take some more phone calls. LJ(ph), LJ with us from Ironton in Ohio.

LJ: Yes, Neal, hi, my name is LJ from Ironton, Ohio. I actually went blind from a brain tumor that was developed from playing football in junior high and high school. And in the culture that I grew up in - I've been wanting to speak on this for a long time - it's a spiritual thing. It drives our culture, this taste for blood.

When I was raised in this, we had a pro team called the Ironton Tanks in the '20s and '30s, the Ironton system in the area here is very, you know, football-oriented. And I was trained and raised if you didn't want to destroy, hurt, injure people - and this might be denied by the local coaching staff - it was true, if you didn't - weren't a vicious, violent animal, you did not play.

And I developed a large brain tumor at age 15. I was being looked at by Ohio State for a full ride, linebacker and nose tackle, and basically the tumor was found much too late, and I lost 95 percent of my vision.

And though prior to that I was - I negate to use the word star. At the time I was and was in newspapers and, you know, different venues of scouting. After I had went blind, all the coaches gone, all my best friends on the team gone, no plaques, no special dinners, I mean not that I deserved something, but there was, you know, I wasn't a poster boy for football, okay?

But I was before the tumor, but the tumor was what had caused my blindness, and just want to say in closing that my views on violent contact sports have totally changed. It again, it's a blood-lust sport, period. (Unintelligible) comment further. I know this is a quick show, but please feel free to ask me anything if you like. I'd love to comment.

CONAN: Obviously this affects what you can do for a living. It's changed everything in your life. But is there a direct connection between the brain tumor and football? Do you know that for sure?

LJ: Yes, yes, yes - after my surgery in Columbus, Ohio, the neurosurgeon emerged, and even prior to that, the ophthalmologist and neurosurgeon both agreed that it was a sub-arachnoidal cyst, and it was caused by hitting your head hard over long periods of time or a very high fever, of which I never had any problem. I was totally healthy.

And my helmet had more paint marks. We used to judge the meanest guys on the team by the most paint you had on your helmet, and I was promoted to kickoff - I started varsity as a freshman, which in our school was very unusual, and I was promoted because, mainly because I was so violent.

And I would say this, that postgraduate, after school, after I, you know, had lost my sight, the thing about football that people don't understand is - and violent sports is - it can very well carry over into other relationships as far as not everybody but, you know, most of the violent football players, the linebackers and the kickoff guys, they tended to be pushy, bully, not be able to have - you know, they had a lot of anger that would carry over.

And that's not an absolute, but I know that with me, in my heart now, I'm a New Testament Christian, I'm very kind and whatever, but for many years, you know, I was very, you know, gruff and short with people. And I think that when you get hit for years and years at a time, I don't care what anybody says. It carries over into other behaviors as you grow to be an adult on a certain level.

CONAN: LJ, I'm so sorry for what happened to you, and thank you very much for sharing your story.

LJ: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can get somebody in on another opinion. This is Ron(ph), and Ron's with us from St. Augustine.

RON: Hello, Neal. Let me preface my comments by saying I'm a Florida Gator fan and a Jacksonville Jaguars fan. But I think...

SCHWARZ: I'm sorry to hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RON: Yeah, really, after what happened today with David Garrard. I don't think the rule changes will affect the viewership. The NFL is such a juggernaut, like was said, that, you know, nothing like a rule change is going to change the ratings on TV.

And as far as it being a gladiator-esque type event, it is. I mean, we watch, and we say, oh, wow, what a hit. And, you know, Tim Tebow, he wasn't even hit by an opponent. He backed into his teammate's knee and had a concussion and then played the next game, which (unintelligible) shouldn't have done.

But anyway, it's a violent sport, but these rule changes are not going to change it.

CONAN: Not going to change it, and it needs to stay a violent sport, do you think?

RON: Maybe keep on tweaking it where it'll decrease the violence little by little. But you know, people are going to get hit. I don't think the elimination of the kickoff is going to - that that might ruin it, because like they say, you know, 100-yard kickoff return. And if you free kick a punt, a punt is almost as bad as a kickoff because people are still coming in to each other real fast.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right, Ron, thanks...

BISSINGER: Not nearly as much.

CONAN: Not really is much, but yeah. And I want to get in a couple of emails. This from Lorie in Rockton, Illinois: I'll admit that a good hit is satisfying on some internal base level - and I'm a woman - but the long-term effects have been demonstrated. It needs to be regulated. The injuries are appalling. I'll be cheering for the Saints tonight and hoping that all the players on both sides stay safe and healthy. I certainly do not want long-term harm to come to anyone because of a game. I would still watch football even if the hits were minimized or outlawed.

This from Anna in Traverse City, Michigan: I agree with Buzz - you come in to football well knowing that it's a violent game. Yes, we're far from the days of leather helmets, but an understanding a possible head injury should be made as plain as day. You play, you take the risk, period. And...

SCHWARZ: And by the way, just to respond to that, I don't think anyone is advocating for a whole lot more than that. I think all we were certainly trying to do at The New York Times was give people the information, whether they were professionals or the parents of kids, on which to base their decisions of whether to take a risk - that particular risk or not. They can take whatever risks they want. We don't care. We would just - rather than banning it. We never said to ban it.

BISSINGER: And another reason for banning it. (Unintelligible) ban it.

Well, actually, you had a story - the most interesting story, one of the most compelling stories upon many compelling stories, was the kid at Penn who, I think, committed suicide. And the concern there was it wasn't - not a single concussion but a series of repetitive hits. Now, I know it's being studied.

SCHWARZ: Oh, oh, oh. Well, I just want to make something very clear. He committed suicide, but no one was saying that his head injuries caused him to commit suicide.

BISSINGER: Alan, your story had the total implication of why it was picked up around the country, and that's the problem I had with it. Otherwise, why did you even mention suicide, and why would you even link it to the repetitive hits.

SCHWARZ: Because the only way to...

BISSINGER: That is the (unintelligible)...

SCHWARZ: The only way to die - the only to look...

BISSINGER: Oh, come on.

SCHWARZ: ...to see...

BISSINGER: Come on.

SCHWARZ: ...if he had brain damage was the fact that...

BISSINGER: Come on.

SCHWARZ: ...he was dead.

BISSINGER: Come on, the thrust of the story was that link, and that always bothered me. Same with Duerson's suicide, it's a very private, complicated act.

SCHWARZ: You think?

BISSINGER: But in any case...

SCHWARZ: I know better than you have any idea.

BISSINGER: You know what, that's terrific. I'm proud of you. In any case - let me finish. If you have repetitive hits and they're causing serious head injuries, how are you going to legislate that out? By having kids - college, whatever - not hit? What are you going to do?

CONAN: All right...

SCHWARZ: No. No. No one is saying that these things can be eliminated.

BISSINGER: But how are you going to prevent it? How are you going to prevent it? How are you going prevent concussion?

SCHWARZ: You can't prevent it entirely. You can decrease it or give people the choice of whether to decrease it or not.

CONAN: And, gentlemen, we're going to have to ask you to leave it there, because I think this is an argument you've had before and may have again. Alan Schwarz of The New York Times, with us from our bureau in New York. Alan, as always, thanks very much.

SCHWARZ: My pleasure.

CONAN: And Buzz Bissinger, sports columnist for The Daily Beast, with us from Philadelphia. Buzz, thank you very much.

BISSINGER: My pleasure.

CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. It is difficult to understand the pounding an NFL player takes unless you've been on the receiving end. Emmitt Smith delivered plenty of big hits himself. He's the NFL's all-time leading rusher, spent most of his 15 years in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. And he joins us now on the phone. Emmet Smith, nice of you to be with us today. Emmitt Smith, are you there?

EMMITT SMITH: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Hi. Nice of you to be with us today. As you look at - you've seen the effect of repeated injuries and head injuries, not just on yourself but on your teammates and on your rivals as well. Now that you're out of the game, what do you think about these rule changes? Can anything be done to mitigate the effects of repeated head injuries without changing the nature of the game?

SMITH: In my opinion, I don't think that there's a whole lot that you can do to mitigate head-to-head contact. This is a very physical sport. You're wearing a helmet for a reason. And part of the reason is to protect you, but also - it also serves as a weapon or a leverage point that a person uses. So trying to mitigate head-to-head injuries is going to be very tough to do. You can try to throw flags and personalize penalties or things like that to try to deter guys from doing it, but at the end of the day, if I'm running the rock(ph) and I get in to a tight squeeze, one of the first things I'm going to do is lower my head and shoulders and get behind my shoulder pads. And the first thing it's going to hit is going to probably would have been my head at some point.

CONAN: Your long-term teammate Daryl "Moose" Johnson has agreed to offer his brain for research into the effect of concussions. He said he's scared that he will have to pay a price for all of those hits, in terms of brain damage and quality of life. After seeing the evidence - and I'm sure you've read it - do you share those concerns?

SMITH: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. I mean, I do. I've gone through the process that Daryl has gone through. Thanks to Daryl, he introduced me to the folks down in Dallas that are doing a lot of the testing right now. And so I have gone through the tests. Right now, everything looks to be - and appear to be fine. But after this and that - what happened with Dave Duerson and some others, yes, it does concerns me. But, you know, I know that the repercussions may be there, and I'm looking out for them. We're trying to do everything in my power to alleviate some of those things.

But there's nothing I can do now. You're right, I played 15 years in the National Football League, three years at the University of Florida, four years in the high school, revered as the (unintelligible) of the lead guy. And so there is - it's a little too late now.

CONAN: Do you wish that you had gotten the warnings when you were a young man and just coming into the league, that the players are getting now? They're much clearer now. Obviously, there's more evidence now too. But that those warning had been there when you were coming in?

SMITH: No, I wish those warnings would have been there, but I don't think it would have changed anything because my love for the game - it is what it is. And so that's just a decision that a player has to make and a person must make. But at the end of the day, if you were in the middle of a season and a doctor says you've had too many concussions and too many blows, because it is one of the things that happens on a repeated basis, and you know, as an individual player, whether or not you've been dinged 200 times or not, and how many times you had to shake things off. You know. And at some point, it will catch up to you.

We had a coach by the name of Joe Avezzano, who used to say, it catches up to you when it catches up to you. And he was talking about mistakes or trying to get away with something here one week and get away the same thing in the next week, and it turns into something bigger. And that's part of the whole process that we're talking about. When you bump your head on a repeated basis in the same spot, generally you're going to have a problem in that particular area.

CONAN: Emmitt Smith, we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today on this issue, and good luck to you.

SMITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Former NFL running back Emmitt Smith, a hall of famer, three-time Super Bowl winner, the NFL leading all-time rusher, and he joined us today by phone. Coming up, the next in our Freshman Read series. Jared Diamond will join us to talk about why colleges picked his "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and what lessons the book may hold for students. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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