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Book questions morality of football

In the summer of 1978, 11-year-old Steve Almond watched as an NFL wide receiver was hit by a defender and left paralyzed.

"What I remember most of all is the fear that dogged me in the days afterward, as it became clear that a star player had been rendered a quadriplegic on national TV: surely the game of football would now be outlawed," Almond recalled.

Of course, football continued on, and he kept watching.

An avid lifelong fan and former sports reporter, Almond explores the morality of football in his new book "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto."

The book comes out as the NFL is embroiled in a controversy over the impact of concussions on players. Many current and former players are exhibiting signs of brain damage, including early dementia.

Almond's book is not a diatribe by a person unfamiliar with the joys of the game and the awe-inspiring feats of its players.

An exceptional, poetic writer, Almond writes that football is an ecstatic celebration of the body at play. His descriptions of what it feels like to play the game capture its wild, fierce beauty. He notes, "I happen to believe that football, in its exalted moments, is not just a sport but a lovely and intricate form or art.

Almond also provides a fascinating history on the growth of football, from its earliest days as a violent hazing ritual inflicted on college freshmen to the juggernaut it is today.

But new medical research on the sport's impacts on players has made it harder and harder for him to enjoy watching the game.

"Over the past few years, a growing body of medical research has confirmed that football can cause traumatic injury to the brain, not as a rare and unintended consequence, but as a routine byproduct of how the game is played," he writes.

The central concern of doctors is not the concussions caused by big collisions, but the incremental damage done by numerous sub-concussive hits. Many current and former players are suffering from a form of dementia called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Almond notes.

With more awareness of the risks, families across America are having to decide whether they will allow their children to play tackle football. If parents decide the sport is too dangerous, Almond writes it's pure hypocrisy to continue watching other people's offspring incur the risks, even if the players are adults.

Since football isn't going away any time soon, Almond recommends a series of reforms, including helmets that record every sub-concussive hit. Players who amass too many impacts would be benched.

He proposes a weight limit for NFL players, which could perhaps be a total team weight rather than targeting individual players. Almond writes that pro players have simply become too big and powerful to play the game safely.

Almond believes lawsuits could eventually cause high schools to abandon football altogether, but in the meantime, he advocates junior varsity players only be allowed to play flag football. He also wants limits on the amount of time youths spend in practice — where many sub-concussive impacts occur.

Almond calls on fans everywhere to use their power to reshape the game they love into something less destructive to the bodies and minds of players.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follower her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.