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NFL at a crossroads with concussion issue

HARTFORD, Conn. — We know there is more than enough courage around to sustain the NFL. We know there is more than enough testosterone, painkillers and, if need be, performance-enhancing drugs to keep the game running through Super Bowl MD … with or without the consent of sober and caring MDs.

What we don’t know is if there is enough courage to profoundly change the NFL. What we don’t know is if there ever would be enough wisdom, penetrating judgment and fortitude to kill the game as we know it before it kills off its too-willing warriors.

As tragic as the suicide of Junior Seau is, it would be entirely disingenuous to call it a wakeup call. The wakeup call was sounded long ago and continues to ring in a nation’s ears with every lawsuit filed by the more than 1,500 former players who claim the NFL hid the danger of concussions. It continues to ring in our conscience with every self-inflicted bullet that pierces some troubled soul such as Seau, Dave Duerson or Ray Easterling.

The real question is: How many of us care to hear that ringing?

America loves football and, judging by church attendance and Nielsen ratings, millions of us may love it more than God. It is a game that seems to capture every piece of the American spirit. There is speed and collision. There is strategy and brutality. Nowhere does athletic coordination meet violent impact like it does on the football field. You know what Napoleon called the NFL? War. You know what Alexander the Great called Bill Belichick? Himself.

From high school to college to the NFL, there is color and pageantry. There are billions wagered. There are beautiful women cheering on their gladiators. There are fanatics demanding victory and their pint of blood. Forget Cap Day or any other promotion. If we left the future of the NFL and major college football in the hands of the vox populi, we would have De-Cap(itation) Day.

You know what kind of Americans hate the NFL? Commies, pansies and soccer aficionados.

Look, I claim no instinctive moral high ground here. When some quarterback gets buried, when some receiver gets flattened my first reaction isn’t, “That guy may commit suicide in 10 years.” It’s, “Can he get up and play?”

So who is going to protect our great players? Who was going to save Andre Waters? Who was going to save a homeless Mike Webster from wandering aimlessly before his death? Who’s going to tell your kid, my kid, that football — as we know it — is the wrong sport to pursue? Who can we trust to give it to us straight?

Certainly not a culture that not only endorses, but insists on, the machismo of its participants. Hell, the players can’t even police themselves. The bounty pool the Saints players paid to knock out their brothers is NFL management’s best argument that the participants are part of the unwitting conspiracy that has led to the plague of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Certainly not the NFL on its own. The NFL wasn’t so different from tobacco companies that once tried to reject the ties between smoking and lung cancer. Not long ago, there was the NFL insisting there was no evidence tying concussions to long-term brain disorders. The NFL went so far as to demand the medical journal Neurosurgery retract Bennet Omalu’s groundbreaking article.

Rather it is going to take pieces of every part of American society to keep up the pressure and gather more and more momentum to find the right answer and do the right thing. It is going to take enough of us who have repeated centuries-old quotes like, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” to recognize that the playing fields also have been our sons’ Waterloo. It is going to take enough of us to recognize that we spent so much time worrying about what performance-enhancing drugs did to shatter our precious baseball records that we didn’t pay attention to what they did to produce monsters who would shatter other football players’ brains.

Most of all we have to be open to the truths that are gathered by medical science. We must allow the facts to guide us.

There are an estimated 300,000 instances of traumatic brain injury every year in amateur athletic sports. How we care for the injured is of great moral imperative. It must be clear from the youngest that rushing back to the field of play and ignoring the symptoms isn’t heroic. It’s idiocy.

The only thing more complicated than the human brain may be the NFL playoff tie-breaking scenarios entering the final weekend of the season. Can we say for certain the CTEs are solely responsible for the suicides or mental problems former players endure? Or is it a combination of genetics and the CTE? And to what degree? We don’t know.

There was something morbidly noble in Duerson shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be studied. We know what he did. He left a note. Was this why Junior did it, too? We don’t know. He did not leave a note. We do know there is so much to find out about brain injury and mental health.

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