The dirty little secret of football

By Tom Joyce -

Tom Joyce

It’s early August, which means the return of football — and I’m talking about real gridiron action, not Canadian football or that Arena League crap.

For the record, the first National Football League event of the season, a preseason contest, is scheduled Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, the annual Hall of Fame Game between the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts. This is essentially a meaningless game in which players you’ve actually heard of are only in for a quarter or so — yet it does have significance because of being the first NFL clash of the 2016 season.

Soon, pro, high school and college games will dominate the landscape (sorry, wives and girlfriends — red-blooded American males will have something to turn their attention to besides you).

And with the return of our favorite sport (sorry, soccer fans), will come renewed concerns about the safety of the game, specifically the issue of concussions.

For decades, this problem was never really given the attention it deserved, with players filtering in and out of the NFL — perhaps enjoying the spotlight for a few years only to wind up on the scrap heap and be replaced by new bodies in the meat-grinder.

Then came tragic incidents including the suicides of former high-profile players such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, and an increasing awareness of how multiple concussions and years of pounding can later lead to conditions including dementia, depression and memory loss.

After years of denial — not unlike cigarette companies refusing to acknowledge that smoking causes cancer — the NFL began taking precautions, probably motivated more by trying to protect its corporate butt from litigation rather than genuine concern.

This has resulted in improved helmet designs to protect players from hard hits, and fines for those who lead with their heads (or spear) opposing players. The situation has reached a ridiculous state in which just about every rough tackle leads to a penalty and/or fine — even those where the player delivers blows with his shoulder pads rather than the helmet.

But the sad reality is that no matter what safety precautions or punishments are imposed, football in its present state will continue to be a game in which people are going to get hurt. And that goes for sandlot players on up to the professional ranks.

No matter how you slice it, football is a violent sport where big, strong individuals are constantly colliding with each other at top speeds. Fans tend to focus on hits delivered to running backs or receivers by head-hunting linebackers and strong safeties, then there is also what goes in the trenches.

Offensive and defensive lines are made up of 300-pounders who ram into each other for 60 minutes, producing cumulative effects that one can only imagine from collisions among such big dudes.

And even if concussions were eliminated from the game, there would still be devastating knee injuries and damage to other body parts such as the spinal cord, shoulders, ribs, etc.

I remember watching an interview with ex-Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith in which he described what a person playing that position goes through with every game. Smith likened it to running full-speed into a closed garage door 35 times from every conceivable angle.

Another great running back, Earl Campbell, can barely walk today, while others, such as Hall of Fame center Jim Otto, have lost limbs.

And the dirty little secret about football? It’s that there is no shortage of people willing to put their bodies on the line despite the well-documented risks. In addition to 1,696 players in the NFL (the 53-man active rosters of 32 teams), there are hundreds of others who have tried to make teams but been cut, plus you have tens of thousands more on the college level and no telling how many in high school.

I’ll bet if you surveyed every pro player, nearly 100 percent would say they are willing to accept all the risks in exchange for fame and fortune — no matter that their short- and long-term health is sacrificed.

I’m sure those same individuals also would demand that the game be made safer, but the truth is that nobody is holding a gun to their heads forcing them to play.

Rather than trying to sanitize it out of existence or reduce it to flag football, fans and players should see the game for what it is and while trying to make it as safe as possible, accept that people are going to get hurt.

When you come right down to it, life itself is not exactly gentle at times.

Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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