Armour: War on football? Better have your head checked

 

Danny Kanell is incensed at what he believes is a “war on football.”

If by war the former NFL quarterback-turned-ESPN Radio host means growing concern and awareness over the long-term dangers of repetitive head trauma, then yes.

If by war he means a demand that safety be the first priority for those who play what is inherently and inextricably a violent game, then yes.

If by war he means a cautious approach when the risks to kids in grade school and junior high remain unknown, then yes.

If by war he means a fervent wish that no one else experience the agonies that Mike Webster, Junior Seau and dozens of other former players did, then yes. Absolutely, and unapologetically, yes.

Kanell sparked a brush fire Tuesday when he took on Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and on Monday wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times saying that children under 18 shouldn’t play football or other contact sports.

Kanell started the day by tweeting: “The war on football is real. Not sure source but concussion alarmists are loving it.” He was flooded with responses on Twitter, and the topic became a centerpiece on his afternoon show on ESPN radio, “Russillo and Kanell.”

It’s no surprise that football, the NFL in particular, feels under siege these days. Each week seems to bring another example of an obvious head injury that was missed by the NFL, despite increased safety measures. At least eight high school players have died since the season began, five from head or neck injuries.

And try as we might to get comfortable on our couches or favorite bar stools these last few weekends, the endless trailers for Concussion, the Will Smith movie that traces the discovery of CTE and the NFL’s abysmal attempts at discrediting it, made that impossible.

“The evidence (tying football to brain injuries) is growing like crazy,” Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said Tuesday during an exchange with Kanell on the radio.

“We’re not going backwards from this.”

Thus, the battle lines are drawn.

No one will argue that football is America’s favorite sport. There are record ratings, and even the biggest dog of a game is must-see-TV. As proof, check out all those millions who tuned in to watch the hapless Dallas Cowboys beat the equally ineptWashington Redskins on Monday Night Football.

Had Ray Rice, Deflategate or any one of Roger Goodell’s bad decisions occurred in another sport, it would have put a dent in its popularity. But not so the NFL. It’s immune to controversy or conflict, our love for it seemingly unconditional.

But too much has been learned about repetitive brain trauma — you know, the kind that can be caused by 300-pound men running into each other at full speed — in the last decade for anyone not to have concerns about football’s role in it. Parents debate whether they should let their kids play, and players themselves are beginning to ponder the price the sport might exact.

So quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, questions are raised. Fears that used to simmer below the surface are now bubbling up into the open.

For some, like Kanell, that feels like an attack on the game he loves.

Though he doesn’t dispute CTE or the damage it can cause, Kanell also doesn’t think there’s enough science to back up some of the claims that are being made.

“All these sample sizes are so small, we don’t have enough information yet,” he said earlier on his show. “But people have leapt to conclusions.”

Or have reached varying ones.

A day after Omalu’s op-ed, Julian Bailes, a neurologist who helped Omalu take on the NFL, insisted there is little risk for youth players

Little risk for current NFL players even, Bailes said, thanks to the protocols put in place over the last six years.

The one thing — perhaps the only thing — that everyone can agree on is there’s still so much we don’t know.

Why do some players develop CTE and others do not? How many hits are too many? Are the hits absorbed as a child or teenager potentially lethal? Or does the real danger not kick in until the game becomes fast and furious? Those are legitimate questions to ask, and the debate they foster is one we must have.

Contrary to what Kanell thinks, raising awareness is not the same as waging war.

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

 

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