Many years ago, I was spending a lazy Sunday morning watching the Seattle Seahawks play the Denver Broncos — then arch-rivals in the AFC West — with my 3-year-old daughter by my side. There was a mid-air collision — helmet to helmet — resulting in the Denver player falling unconscious to the turf.
The network proceeded to run the instant replay, in slow motion of course, repeatedly while the team's medical staff was tending to the fallen player.
"Daddy?" my little daughter asked, "Why did that man fall down?"
I had no good answer. The best I could come up with was, "He had a really big owie."
The player eventually came to and made his wobbly way to the sideline under his own power. He was back in before long.
Now, nearly three decades later, we know a lot more about the long-term effects of head trauma on football players, and the National Football League has implemented a five-step recovery protocol for any player who suffers a concussion during a game. We also know, thanks to recent medical research, that full concussions are not the only risk to players' health.
Repeated blows to the head, even when they don't result in concussions, can cause long-term effects including confusion, memory loss, depression, emotional instability and suicide. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the medical term for this syndrome, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Football organizations ranging from the NFL all the way down to Pop Warner and pee-wee leagues are taking steps to make the game safer.
Many question whether football can be made safe enough without changing the nature of the game beyond recognition. Some parents are steering their athletic offspring into less hazardous sports, and some NFL players have quit playing, deciding the risk of permanent impairment is too great.
And what of the fans? I never played the game. My contribution was to march in the band at halftime. But I've always enjoyed watching games and cheering on the Seahawks, Ducks and, once upon a time, Huskies (don't hate me; I earned a degree from the University of Washington).
Lately, however, I find myself conflicted. As exciting as a hard-fought gridiron battle can be, it invariably involves violent collisions and tackles that I know put players at risk. I've never really enjoyed watching boxing, but somehow I was able to overlook the violence of football. Not anymore.
Sure, NFL players are paid fabulous salaries, and they make the choice to take the money rather than pursue some safer profession.
But college players are competing for school pride and whatever glory goes along with it. The NCAA's own statistics show only 1.7 percent of college football players end up in the NFL. The percentage of high-school players who do: 0.08.
It's getting harder to enjoy college games, knowing that some of those supremely talented athletes could end up permanently damaged from a few years of competition.
Still, football continues to be extremely popular, and lucrative for advertisers, NFL team owners and the major colleges that rake in money from TV revenues and ticket and merchandise sales. As long as that revenue stream continues, I suspect the game will, too.
But I can't be the only one who's beginning to question the value of a game that asks so much of those who play it.
— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.