John Kass, the reporter/columnist who had to follow Mike Royko, has never been a favorite of mine. But I couldn't help noticing his surprising column today.
With all that college beef on parade this week, the NFL draft is a wonder of sports marketing, a televised pageant for the multibillion-dollar American football industry.The NFL has decent support among younger people compared to other major sports, but I don't know how fast that would erode if fewer young men were playing in high school. Given the personality/image of Kass, the idea he would forbid his children to play is significant to me.
But there's something football fans should know:
Football is dead in America.
Make no mistake. I loved football. I loved it desperately. Even now, four decades later, I remember endlessly damning myself for being too small to play it at a big-time college. I ached for it, for the violence of it, for the training, the salt pills and no water on hot August fields, the helmet scabs on the forehead, but mostly the collisions. And I still love it, but I can't shake the guilt of supporting the physical ruin of great athletes. My wife and I wouldn't let our sons play. We just couldn't.
Future historians may explain all this in terms of cultural change, of more information about concussions, spinal cord injuries, paralysis and brain damage, and another football killer, taxpayer liability.
Some 4,000 former NFL players have joined lawsuits against the league for allegedly hiding the dangers to the brain. This follows a rash of depression-related suicides, with some players shooting themselves in the chest so that their brains could be studied after their deaths. One of these was the great Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. He left a suicide note, asking that doctors examine what was in his skull after a lifetime of bashing it. College players have also filed suit.
Eventually, lawsuits will overwhelm the high schools. And high school superintendents won't be able to increase property taxes to pay for the additional cost of subsidizing the game.
"The idea that five years ago I would have forbidden my kids to play football is hard to imagine," said Joseph Siprut, a lawyer representing former Eastern Illinois University player Adrian Arrington and other athletes in federal court over the long-term effects of head injuries.
"It never would have occurred to me. Now, given what I know about the concussion issue — first as a lawyer who has litigation, but also as someone who reads the papers — for me as a parent, I don't think I would ever let my kids set foot on a football field. Ever." [More]
I also think pro football has, like other sports, suffered from public aversion to astronomical salaries, unattractive conduct on and off the field, and high ticket prices. Shorter player tenure discourages fan loyalty, and cable TV pricing shrinks coverage.
The NFL needs a major health issue like it needs a blow to the head.