Why Do We Love Football So Much? Theater Tackles Tough Questions : Shots - Health News A play based on interviews with former NFL players, their families and fans digs deep: What's so fun about a sport that devastates bodies and brains? And what if it can't be made safer?
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Why Do We Love Football So Much? Theater Tackles Tough Questions

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Why Do We Love Football So Much? Theater Tackles Tough Questions

Why Do We Love Football So Much? Theater Tackles Tough Questions

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Just in time for the Super Bowl, the Berkeley Repertory Theater is presenting the world premiere of a play about football, its effects on players and fans. It's based on interviews with former pro players, their families and the people who root for them. April Dembosky, of member station KQED, reports on "X's And O's (A Football Love Story)."

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Dwight Hicks plays the coach and several other characters in "X's And O's." He also played safety for the San Francisco 49ers and the Indianapolis Colts in the 1980s.

DWIGHT HICKS: I had a ruptured tendon in this finger. I broke my hand, rotator cuff, shoulder injuries, but I never missed a game because of an injury.

DEMBOSKY: He was a four-time Pro Bowler. But it wasn't until the early 2000s that Hicks realized there might be another injury he needed to worry about. That's when more and more retired football players began reporting symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's.

HICKS: It wasn't scary until some of the prominent players - guys that I knew, some guys that I played against - started to have this problem.

DEMBOSKY: Other colleagues were showing personality changes, rage and depression, signs of a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Playwright KJ Sanchez says these medical discoveries thrust football into an identity crisis and not for the first time.

KJ SANCHEZ: There have been intense conversations about the violence of the game, the brutality of the game and the safety of the players. Through every generation, we knew what the risks were.

DEMBOSKY: Throughout the play, there are breaks in the narrative where the cast marks some of the game's historical moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "X'S AND O'S (A FOOTBALL LOVE STORY)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: 1869.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: Rutgers and Princeton play the first college football game.

DEMBOSKY: In 1905, 19 high school and college players died playing the game. The president of Harvard at the time, Charles Elliott, wanted to banish football.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "X'S AND O'S (A FOOTBALL LOVE STORY)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Charles Elliott) Today's football is a boy-killing, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: Teddy Roosevelt, president of the United States, responds. The bruising nature of football instills manly virtues and builds strong bodies. When with each passing day, America risks becoming less rugged and virile.

DEMBOSKY: Playwright KJ Sanchez and her co-writer Jenny Mercein got the idea for the play after a pivotal milestone in today's debate about head injury - the suicide of former San Diego Charger Junior Seau. They wondered whether they as fans - and they both are - Mercein's father played for the Packers - had some responsibility to the players and for the fate of football itself.

SANCHEZ: And we started to talk about how many conflicted feelings we had about loving the game, now understanding the significance of the damage that the game does.

DEMBOSKY: In "X's And O's (A Football Love Story)," they leave it to a table of fans at a bar to work through.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "X'S AND O'S (A FOOTBALL LOVE STORY)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As fan) If football goes away...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As fan) It's not going to go away.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As fan) My family, we don't go to church. We're not big on concerts or theater or whatever, so football's our way of being part of something bigger. I have to admit, I'd be lonely.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As fan) But you've got to ask, why are you watching it?

DEMBOSKY: The question - how violent the game has to be to be entertaining, and what they really get out of that violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "X'S AND O'S (A FOOTBALL LOVE STORY)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As fan) I think I watch it for the moment not when the guy gets knocked down, but rather the moment he gets back up. I think I need to remember we can get back up. I don't know.

DEMBOSKY: After the play runs in theaters, Sanchez wants to take it to colleges and high schools. She wants to start conversations like these in the community, especially among young people who will decide whether to play or not, and how much of their future they want to bet on football. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.

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