Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Head Injuries May Redefine Football's Manly Image

Former NFL player Brent Boyd rubs his head while sitting next to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. i i

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (right) attends an Oct. 28 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee about football brain injuries with former NFL player Brent Boyd (center) and NFL Hall of Famer Willie Woods (left). Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Former NFL player Brent Boyd rubs his head while sitting next to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (right) attends an Oct. 28 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee about football brain injuries with former NFL player Brent Boyd (center) and NFL Hall of Famer Willie Woods (left).

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dave Pear was an outstanding defensive lineman who played in a Pro Bowl and on a Super Bowl-winning team. When I was chatting with him in his living room a year ago, suddenly he thrust out one of his huge hands, grasping the back of my neck, squeezing hard. The pain I felt was excruciating. My hands shot up in desperation to try to release his grip.

And then, just as quickly, he let go of me. "Hurt?" he asked, rhetorically. I nodded, ruefully. "Well," he said, "sometimes, without medication, that's how much I've hurt all day long."

Dave Pear took and administered hundreds of hits. Effectively, he played some games with what might have been a broken neck. That's what football players are supposed to do. Play hurt. Go back in the game. And because of that, so many of them, like Pear, have spent years debilitated, in pain.

Only now, at last, are the people in the sport beginning to acknowledge what has been obvious: Football is a gladiator entertainment. Indeed, let us give credit to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Yes, it took him long enough — but in the past month, he has finally begun to take the league out of the same kind of denial that baseball suffered so long vis-a-vis steroids.

Goodell has issued new, more stringent rules with regard to concussions and has urged former players to will their brains to a study at Boston University, which is seeking to determine how much the sport scrambles brains.

Invariably, however, when any attempts to improve football safety are suggested, a cry goes up that the spoilsports are out to destroy the very essence of the game. Hey, it's supposed to be a cruel sport. And, yes, it not only is, but as the players get bigger and faster, the collisions increase in their raw manpower.

Moreover, in a real way, the focus of the action has moved, inexorably, up the body. What was originally football became more legball, then armball and now, essentially, headball.

Don't worry, fans — none of this is going to endanger the spectator sport. Indeed, if anything, football becomes more popular, more vicariously exciting, as it becomes more dangerous. No, the greater cultural question is at the American grass roots: whether the new enlightenment — which will include yet another congressional hearing Monday — will affect the way the sport is viewed for our children.

I can remember when educated, middle-class parents let their children smoke — and that's simply not accepted today. Will the same sort of people now conclude that they don't want their sons going out for football?

Far more boys play football in high school than any other sport — well more than a million each autumn. For many Americans, it's a rite of passage for their sons to be on the football team.

Nobody says that you learn to be a man playing baseball, say, or basketball. But that has always been a romantic part of the attraction of American football.

But as the risks of football injury and long-term disability become more exposed, will many parents decide that it's better for their boys to play a safer but less glamorous sport? What price manly?

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford