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Merilatt: Gridiron reform is coming soon

It wasn’t a good weekend for football fans. And the trouble had nothing to do with the abomination that was the Pro Bowl last night in Hawaii.

Instead, the game was dealt a potential blow off the field. Two separate news items served as warning signs, foreshadowing changes on the horizon for a sport that has become the national pastime.

First, news leaked that the President of the United States took a swipe at football in an upcoming magazine article.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” Obama told the New Republic.

Before this devolves into a debate about government intervention, keep in mind the context of the quote. The President wasn’t speaking as a politician; that would immediately divide the population on each side of the issue. Instead, he was speaking as a parent; and that affiliation crosses all party lines.

The most powerful man in the free world saying that football has become so dangerous that he isn’t sure if he would allow his child to participate in the sport is an astounding statement. It’s an attention-getter, a comment that is sure to generate plenty of conversation.

It begs the question: Is football excessively dangerous?

Obviously, the sport isn’t “safe.” It’s a violent game filled with high-speed collisions; injuries are inevitable. But up until this point, everyone – players, coaches, administrators, parents and fans – has been willing to accept that risk. Broken body parts were an acceptable price to pay for gridiron glory.

For the first time in the modern era of football, however, that’s starting to change.

When a future Hall of Fame linebacker takes his own life at the age of 43, it makes people ask questions. When reports surface that Junior Seau’s untimely death may have been linked to the repeated head traumas he suffered on the gridiron, it’s natural for people to wonder if the potential negatives of the sports don’t outweigh the positives.

That’s uncharted territory. And the President’s statement demonstrates that society has ventured into those waters.

At this point, however, the pot is simply simmering. People are starting to ask questions, wonder aloud and seek more information. But behaviors haven’t changed. No current NFL players are walking away from the game because they’ve deemed the danger to be too great. High schools aren’t having trouble fielding a team because not enough moms and dads are willing to sign permission slips. No fans, at least not in any measurable numbers, are turning their backs on football in protest of the violence.

But that may change if one of the players in Sunday’s Super Bowl proves to be prophetic. Baltimore’s Bernard Pollard, one of the hardest hitters in the league, worries about the game enduring the ultimate tipping point.

“The only thing I’m waiting for – and, Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen – is a guy dying on the field,” the Ravens safety told CBS Sports. “We’ve had everything else happen there, except for a death.”

Such an event would be everyone’s worst fears realized. It would make it impossible to ignore the risks anymore. Parents would forbid their kids from playing the game. Players and coaches would question the wisdom of continuing to participate in the sport. And the government would almost certainly begin conversations about necessary changes.

It’s happened before.

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded a national campaign to reform the sport. The game was simply too dangerous, leading to countless injuries and even on-field deaths, so the President stepped in and demanded action. His efforts led to rules changes, such as the advent of the forward pass, which helped usher in the modern age of football.

Something similar is going to happen again. It’s just a matter of whether or not it occurs before or after an unspeakable tragedy occurs.

“Those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” Obama told the New Republic, providing a clue that reforms are brewing. “In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players.”

Perhaps changes will prevent gridiron heroes like Seau, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and too many others from suffering injuries that lead to their premature demise. Maybe they would avert the disaster that Pollard foresees.

No one knows for sure what would be tweaked, but the sport will almost certainly evolve. The fundamentals and rules associated with tackling could change. The number of players on the field might even be up for discussion. And perhaps even player weight limits would be on the table. Anything that could limit the impact of on-field collisions is a possibility.

In the long run, that would make the game more enjoyable. It would remove the pang of guilt that is now starting to accompany every big hit. The President certainly thinks so.

“Those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

That’s something both sides of the aisle should support. It’s time to fix football, before it’s too late.


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