Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Cowboys. Or Steelers. Or Raiders. Or Panthers.
Why? Three little words: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE for short), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head, even those that stop short of causing a concussion. Researchers at Boston University examined the brains of 91 former football players and found CTE in 87 of them. And there's strong evidence that the damage starts long before a player reaches the pro level – even as early as elementary school. What parent in their right mind would allow their child to be exposed to that kind of risk?
As I watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, I kept marveling at how far the NFL has come since I was a kid, and how quickly it could go away.
Back in the 1950s pro football was a big nothing, far behind the college game in popularity, and really, really far behind the big three: baseball, boxing and horse racing.
Today, boxing and horse racing are fringe sports. And as for the so-called National Pastime, the NFL draft gets higher ratings every year than the World Series.
What happened? Television. Football lends itself to the small screen better than any other sport. You can't understand what's really going on in a baseball or basketball game unless you're there in person because that's the only way you can watch the play unfold as all the players move at once.
But the prime attraction of watching football is not watching the play; it's watching the replay – long, loving, slow-motion closeups of the snot flying out of a guy's nose as his head jerks back when somebody "jacks him up."
The turning point was the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, the first NFL championship ever televised. By coincidence, it turned out to be "The Greatest Game Ever Played." and it turned millions of new fans on to the atavistic pleasure of watching people knock each other's heads off.
Today, the NFL bestrides the world like a Colossus, and all the other sports walk under its legs and peep out. But, ironically, the very thing that has made it so popular – the violence – is the same thing that threatens to destroy it.
The NFL is rearranging the deck chairs on this sinking ship by passing new rules that dictate when and how players can hit each other, but the truth is that there's nothing they can do to stem the inevitable. As Vince Lombardi said, "Football isn't a contact sport. Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport." And players are getting bigger and stronger and faster every year, making those collisions ever more violent. It's only a matter of time before parents wake up and start directing their kids into less dangerous activities.
So enjoy this gladiatorial circus while you can because it's not going to last much longer. Yes, there will always be poor kids who see sports as the only way out of their poverty. But with so many other sports like basketball, baseball, tennis and track paying just as well, what incentive will they have to go into football?
Don't get me wrong: I still love football. And I'm going to miss it.