I'm struck by the echoes of two men's thoughts on the subject of violence in football. One is our commander-in-chief. The other plays on football's front lines. They're saying the same thing, but one is from the brain, and the other is from the heart.
As part of a longer interview, Franklin Foer of the New Republic asked President Obama if he enjoys football less than he used to, knowing what we know about what the game does to players. The president responded:
I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much.
I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they're grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about.
As you might imagine, in certain dark corners of the Internet, people were saying things like MUSLIM WAR ON FOOTBALL. We'll just say that Obama was the one to finally bring the '85 Bears to the White House. Anybody who loves the '85 Bears not only appreciates football, but is comfortable with violence.
The interesting part about what Obama said was the line he draws between NFL players and college players. As our Patrick Hruby has written, the NCAA has done just about nothing to attack the problem of concussions among college players -- at least partly because admitting the problem would make the NCAA more liable in lawsuits. NFL players are suing the league by the thousands. And there are a lot more former college players than there are former NFL players.
Obama's thoughts on football made news because anything a president says makes news. But the deeper thoughts on the topic came from somebody who's one of the symbols of violence in football -- especially to Patriots fans.
Bernard Pollard's hit on Tom Brady's knee in the '08 season opener knocked Brady out for the season. He was involved in plays that caused injuries to Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. And his hit on Stevan Ridley in the AFC championship game created one of those images that sums up football: Ridley, knocked out cold on the ground, while a scrum of players next to him clawed for the football he fumbled.
Pollard, talking to Clark Judge of CBSSports.com, said he doesn't think football will exist 30 years from now because fans will get fed up with a less-violent game. But he also said the violence is likely to get worse first:
The league is trying to move in the right direction (with player safety), but, at the same time, (coaches) want bigger, stronger and faster year in and year out. And that means you're going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees. The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field. We've had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.
This, to me, is the dread behind every big hit. Football players are so big now, and so fast, but the soft and vulnerable parts of the body remain. No helmet is concussion-proof. No knee can take a sideways hit from a 300-pound lineman. And at some point, you have to think the forces will be strong enough that a football blow could kill.
It has happened before. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mentioned it Monday in his Ask Me Anything chat on Reddit:
The game of football has always been tough and always will be. Even before the NFL was founded, President Teddy Roosevelt called the college presidents in to make sure that the safety issues of the game were addressed since there had been 17 deaths in 1905 alone. From there came the first and ten, forward pass and the inception of the NCAA. Since then, the game has flourished while sticking to the fundamentals of fair and competitive football. Our football coaches and executives wanted to bring the game back to the fundamentals of tackling and blocking. We have seen some of the best NFL football in our history during this season's playoffs. Hope we finish with another great one on Sunday.
You might note that Goodell doesn't say much about dealing with injury problems now.
He is right about one thing: This year's playoffs have been amazing. Football is about collisions, and the avoidance of collisions, and the danger is part of what makes the game beautiful. I'm not sure most fans could enjoy a football game without the danger. But I'm not sure we can keep living with where the biology of the game is taking us.
What President Obama knows, and Roger Goodell knows, and Bernard Pollard most surely knows, is that we have been lucky so far with football. Those of us who love it have to decide what kind of game we're willing to live with. Because our luck is bound to run out.