Hot Button: Concussions in football

Question 3. Statement: The concussions issue has altered the way I watch pro football. Definitely agree. I find that I cannot/do not enjoy the game knowing people get permanently hurt: 9.6% Agree. I still watch but it has had a clear effect on my football watching. 39.3% Neutral. 10.8% Disagree. I’m saddened by each concussion discovery but honestly I watch football the same: 35.5% Strongly disagree. Don’t think about it. I love football as much or more than ever. 4.8% Broken Down: Agree: 48.9% Disagree: 40.3% Neutral: 10.8% * * * I thought this was the most intense question in the survey … if a question on a survey can be intense. It seems to me that we are told two broad things over and over again:

1. We are told that pro football is more dangerous than we imagined. We are told that concussions, which were often thought of as minor and temporary injuries -- even badges of honor for the tough football player -- are having horrible and devastating effects on the human brain. More evidence on this comes out every day. We see the pain and agony that many former players endure after their careers are over. We watch the living hell that amazing football players like Junior Seau and Mike Webster live after they have spent 15 years entertaining us with their violence.

2. We are told that pro football is more popular than it has ever been by every measure. The television ratings do not only dwarf everything else in sports, they dwarf everything else in entertainment. The crowds are massive despite the high prices and, in many places, a family-unfriendly fan experience. The money spent on pro football in America -- through television, radio, the internet, newspapers, magazines, fantasy football, gambling operations -- is utterly mind-boggling.

How do these two realities dance with each other? I hear people all the time jump to the most extreme views. They will say that people will soon stop watching football entirely (based on the gruesome facts that keep emerging and a few prominent people who do stop) OR they will say that people do not care at all about the violence of what it is doing to the men who play (based on the enormous success of football and the even higher projections).

My suspicion is that neither of those viewpoints is close. I think most people do care about the dangers of pro football, I also think most people are thoroughly engaged in pro football. I think most people want the game to be safer. And I think most people want the game to remain thrilling.

Pro football is embedded in our lives. It is the most perfectly situated sport in American history. It is played once a week, mostly on Sunday, in an era when we have less and less time during the week for recreation. It is perfectly designed for viewing on a high-definition, large-screen television in an era of high-definition, large-screen televisions. It is constructed in a way that suits advertisers and sponsors, it is structured in a way that encourages fantasy sports, it is the ultimate sport for gamblers. While baseball has thrashed against seemingly every notch of progress for 50 years, football just becomes more and more a part of our lives with every technological advancement.

But I don’t think that means most people are callous to the concussion revelations. I think most people look at a helmet-to-helmet hit differently now than they did even two years ago. I think most people would happily give up a little bit of the buzz and rush of watching football if it would make the game safer. I think most people, at least every now and again, do think about what the players may be giving up in order to play football at the most ferocious level.

What interested me most about this poll is that the vast majority of you -- more than three quarters of you, in fact -- checked either “I still watch but it has had a clear effect on my football watching” or “I’m saddened by each concussion discovery but honestly I watch football the same.” That says to me that football watching is evolving. Slowly. Well, evolution is slow. There’s an creeping awareness now. Maybe, for some, it’s a small twinge when we see a receiver and safety crash helmets. Maybe it’s a fleeting question about how these hits will affect players like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning down the road.

I’ll give you a personal example: Wednesday, it seems, the utterly desperate St. Louis Rams called 44-year-old Brett Favre to see if he might come out of retirement and be quarterback for their crummy team. My first reaction was the obvious one: The Rams have to be out of their minds. Brett Favre? Seriously? That man’s a grandfather, for crying out loud. Why not just place a call to Joe Montana and Sonny Jurgensen while you’re at it? That’s just such an act of desperation from a 3-4 team that you can’t help but shake your head.

But my second thought was different from what it might have been: Were they really trying to bring back a 44-year-old man who has already been sacked more times than any quarterback ever into the league? There seems something almost unfeeling about that, something almost cruel, let the man alone already, he’s done enough, he’s taken enough hits, quit trying to tempt him back with some money and a few last strains of glory.

No, the way we watch football will not just change, suddenly, overnight. Sure, a few people will stop watching. But only a few. Sure, a few people will refuse to believe that the violence in the NFL is that damaging or they will simply be unaffected by it. But only a few. For most, I suspect, there will be an evolution. It will take a long long time. And it will be unpredictable. I don’t know what direction it will go. But I feel pretty sure we will all watch football differently over the next five, 10 and 15 years.*

*I should add here that the essence of this question was entirely built around how we watch pro football. The many other changes -- such as letting children play football, the dangers of high school football, the countless contradictions of college football on and on -- are even more involved and are worth many other discussions.