- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
NEW ORLEANS – The dustup over deer-antler spray didn't last long, which is probably just as well. No reason to ruin Ray Lewis' retirement, or the week-long spectacle of everything that is the National Football League in this party town.
On Sunday perhaps the biggest audience ever to see a Super Bowl will gather in front of televisions for parties of their own. The game has become America's unofficial national holiday, its tradition of chip eating, beer drinking and commercial watching as deeply ingrained in the country's fabric as turkey and stuffing.
We celebrate the game even as it takes a brutal toll on those who play it. Football is a hurt business, and the biggest cheers on Sunday will be for those who deliver the biggest hits.
So remember when you jump and down and holler and scream that former players, some of whom entertained us in Super Bowls past, are suffering in the worst possible ways because of the beating their brains took on the playing field.
That the NFL is finally waking up to the crisis is commendable. That it took this long is deplorable.
It's hard to comprehend, and it may be the ultimate paradox. But football itself could be the one thing that kills the NFL.
Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard suggested the other day that it just might, calling the on-field violence "a car accident every play" and expressing fear that one day a player might die on the field. This, from a player who was fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker in the AFC championship game and is considered one of the hardest hitters out there.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, says if he had a son he would "have to think long and hard" about letting him play football.
And if commissioner Roger Goodell didn't get it before, he seems to get it now. In recent months, he floated the idea of eliminating kickoffs to cut down on concussions, and used much of his state of the NFL appearance Friday to talk about improving player safety.
"The No. 1 issue is: Take the head out of the game," Goodell said. "I think we've seen in the last several decades that players are using their head more than they had when you go back several decades."
It's too late for former players, some of whom suffer from debilitating brain damage caused by hits to the head. Some 3,500 of them are suing the NFL for not doing enough to protect them, including the family of star linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself to death last May. Medical researchers who studied his brain said findings were similar to autopsies of people "with exposure to repetitive head injuries."
While the league celebrates its new Hall of Fame inductees and fetes former stars who can still walk and talk, it fights every inch of the way in court on fears the claims of injured players can hit owners where it hurts the most — their wallets.
If anything, the game has become more brutal since the first Super Bowl 46 years ago. The players are bigger and faster, and better equipment gives them the false confidence to go head-to-head with each other.
No sport worth playing should need neurologists on the sidelines to protect participants. But that's precisely what the NFL will have next year as it belatedly tries to contain the fallout from the concussion issue.
Count former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison among those who worry. He was fined repeatedly in his long career for helmet-to-helmet hits, and estimates he suffered 20 concussions on the field. Today he works as a television analyst and seems healthy, but said on the "Costas Tonight" Super Bowl special that he gets headaches from bright lights and playing golf and has some anxiety issues he believes were caused by concussions.
"I'm scared to death," he said. "I have four kids, I have a beautiful wife, and I'm scared to death what may happen to me 10, 15 years from now."
The issue was big this week as members of the 49ers and Ravens were asked repeatedly about the safety of the game they make their living from. Most players dismissed fears about their safety, saying they knew what they were in for when they signed up to play football. But, at the same time, the players' union released a survey showing eight out of 10 players don't trust team doctors.
Understandable, when they serve at the pleasure of their employers. Even more understandable if you play in San Diego, where the team doctor lost a malpractice lawsuit last summer and the Medical Board of California wants to revoke his medical license.
These are all serious issues that deserve serious attention. The game will never be totally safe, but it can be safer.
Enjoy the Super Bowl. Celebrate the unofficial national holiday.
And hope that Goodell is as serious as he claims in finding a way to keep players safer than they are today.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg