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Published: Wednesday, 5/9/2012

COMMENTARY

Football too violent for this grandpa

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

God blessed us with daughters. That meant softball, soccer, and volleyball. All are fairly safe sports, although multiple surgeries might lead Beth's right shoulder to disagree. True, our youngest might someday have trouble reaching for the top shelf. But she should be able to grow old and remember her name.

Now I have a problem. We have a grandson, on the puny side when he was born, but now a solid chunk of dude. He pretty much looks like what an inside linebacker should look like at five months.

Ian basically has grandpa wrapped around his little finger. So I will someday buy him beginner's golf clubs. I'll buy him a ball and a mitt. A tennis racket, too. Maybe we'll shoot hoops in the driveway. A soccer ball? Sure, it's on me. I'll drive him to swimming lessons. God willing, I'll do any and all of those things.

But I will never buy him a football.

If that seems hypocritical, I plead guilty. I am a big fan of the sport, from high schools to Ohio State-Michigan to the Super Bowl. More importantly, I've derived an income for some 40 years in large part from writing about it.

But I would hate for my grandson to play it. It is a brutal, violent, dangerous game, harmful to the players' health.

Sure, with today's medical and orthopedic advances, broken bones and torn ligaments and dislocated joints all heal. There is something, however, that does not. In fact, trauma to this part of the body only worsens over time. And it is merely the brain.

We don't know, and may never know, why Junior Seau committed suicide last week. He was 43 years old and seemingly healthy and wealthy and happy. He reveled in his popularity and, at least in San Diego if not throughout the NFL, that never waned.

He shot himself in the chest, but left no suicide note. When Dave Duerson, the former Bears' star, put a bullet in his chest, not his head, in early 2011 he left a note requesting his brain be donated for scientific study; results determined all the head injuries he had absorbed led to significant, long-term brain damage and disease. Did Seau have the same suspicions? Was his bullet aimed with a similar intent?

A month ago, retired safety Ray Easterling, who played for eight seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, killed himself. Easterling was a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NFL claiming the league failed to protect players from head injuries. That action led the way to nearly 1,000 similar suits by former players against the NFL.

Ironically, just hours before Seau's death, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell levied suspensions, considered harsh by some, at current and former New Orleans players for their parts in a bounty scheme that encouraged inflicting injuries on opponents. Under Goodell, the league has taken steps to cut down on dangerous styles of play and enacted rules to cut down on violent hits and collisions. But the NFL can't have it both ways.

The league has always shielded itself against any correlation between its sport and traumatic brain injuries. It has been criticized for its lack of long-term health care and insurance for former players. It will defend itself to the hilt against current lawsuits because losing could bankrupt even the wealthiest of pro sports leagues.

I have dealt at too great length here with the NFL. The odds that my grandson, or anyone's grandson, could someday play pro football are microscopic. Not so much for high school or college, whether at Notre Dame or in Division III. Players, especially aggressive and tough guys, put themselves at risk, regardless of the level. And how many hits to the head does it take? One hundred? One? Somewhere in between? Who knows?

Plus, we're not talking only about suicide, which is the extreme-case scenario. The issues that radiate from brain trauma include depression, amnesia, insomnia (sometimes stemming from chronic and acute bone and muscle pain), Parkinson's disease, dementia, Alzheimer's, and perhaps even ALS (Lou Gehrig Disease).

Enough said?

My Christmas morning column last year was basically a letter to my new grandson. In it, I told Ian I hope he becomes who and what he wants to be, based on what brings him joy, regardless of what others might think. I won't renege on that. If it is his decision to play football, so be it.

But somebody else will have to buy him that first ball. I love him too much to do it.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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