Wrestling with reality

The NFL has a problem.

Football is a violent game. People pay to see the violence, and players play to inflict it.

If that violence is removed or curtailed, as seems to be the goal of each season's rules changes, will the dollars still pour in? The millions upon millions of dollars that have made the NFL a behemoth, a cultural entity unto itself, a many-tentacled beast sliding sticky fingers into Madison Avenue and the back pockets of fans in every region of the country?

If it isn't, can the fans who love football, who live it and breathe it, live with themselves?

Football cannot be made completely safe. All the misguided targeting rules in the world, legislating the lowering of running backs' heads, even constructing a plastic bubble around the quarterback - none of this will remove the inherent danger from a sport where bodies collide, over and over, with the force of car crashes.

The real rub is, it's not even the highlight hits, the helmet-to-helmet collisions, the defenseless receiver smackdowns across the middle that do the most damage. Studies indicate that it's repetitive impact in the same area that causes concussions and signs of brain injury as early as high school, if not before.

Just lining up to practice a play can start an ultimately catastrophic chain of events.

It's a serious business. Junior Seau pointing a gun at his chest and pulling the trigger is serious business. Tony Dorsett being diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive disease that was also found in Seau's brain, and in the brain of former Falcon Ray Easterling before he shot himself, is serious business.

In case you missed it, former Dolphins great Mark Duper tested positive for CTE, too, in early November, around the same time two-time Super Bowl winner Leonard Marshall was diagnosed.

The hits keep coming.

It's a conundrum. Those of us who grew up loving this game are reluctant to admit the harm it causes our heroes. We can be excused some of that reluctance, out of loyalty and ignorance. The NFL gets no such pass, as evidence of it brushing aside medical research linking football and CTE in 1994 is damningly detailed in "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," the much-discussed book by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru published last month.

In an excerpt from the book, published in Sports Illustrated and online at sportsillustrated.cnn, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue dismisses concussion and CTE concerns as "pack journalism."

The NFL's $765 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 former players and their families no doubt provided some measure of solace, financial and otherwise, to the 18,000 retired players who know all too well that Tagliabue's characterization was flippant and false. It also kept more scenes like that one, which occurred at a joint NFL/NBA/NHL panel in New York City moderated by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, from becoming public knowledge through any disclosure motions.

So what can be done, for those who love the game but have had their heads ripped out of the sand surrounding its risks?

The answers are complicated and elusive, if they exist. The first step has been taken, one hopes, by a league that now understands the medical consequences it faces, and the public ramifications of failing to deal with them. Common-sense approaches to diagnosing and treating concussions, the abandoning of the tough-guy mentality of playing hurt, the greater freedom of players (and team doctors) to express concerns - all of these would also be progress.

Throwing players out of games for ill-defined violations of a poorly understood rule (the targeting penalty that has cropped up often this season, especially in the college ranks, and is the football equivalent of a hate crime in that it tries to define intent) doesn't proactively address the problem. A player is ejected from a game for targeting an opponent's head, but many times, the ejection is reversed, and the player stays in the game while the penalty stands. Um, what?

It also accomplishes little to further weight the rules of the game in favor of an already favored offense: roughing-the-passer penalties for two-hand touch shoves, pass interference flags thrown - or at least expected and signaled for by players and fans - on every route with any contact. This may limit the hardest hits, increase point totals and keep some fannies in the seats, but it also angers other fans, those who roar for the physicality of the game and think the present-day product is diminished.

It's hard to reconcile that belief with the knowledge that the game too often maims and sometimes kills, indirectly or otherwise, those who play it.

It's a risk players will tell you they understand and accept - 20-something, healthy, in-their-prime players, anyway. But it's a risk that must be weighed against the love of football that is ingrained in our culture, our history and our DNA, and against common sense.

Some of my fondest memories are of watching football with my father.

If I had a son, I would not let him play.

And there is the inescapable catch-22. The game is violent, and violence is the game. You accept the latter to cheer the former. One doesn't exist without the other, not in football's present form, not in any form most fans would recognize and support.

It's just a question of whether those two uneasy bedfellows can continue their tenuous co-existence, or if they will eventually destroy each other.