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Players suing NFL knew risks football posed

People watch NFL see Brian Urlacher knock snot out Adrian Peterson. | Sun-Times Media

People watch the NFL to see Brian Urlacher knock the snot out of Adrian Peterson. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 11, 2012 10:18AM

When was the last time you heard a boxer complain about the dangers of boxing? Can you imagine Manny Pacquiao saying: ‘‘This isn’t funny, guys. One of these days,
somebody’s going to get hurt’’?

Boxing is inherently dangerous. The participants know it, and the people who enjoy watching the sport know it. When fighters punch each other in the head, there’s a reasonable expectation someone is going to fall down in a heap. Actually, there’s a lust for it.

In football, the idea is to score more points than the other team, but it’s as much about violence as boxing is. To pretend it isn’t is to live in a lost world in which your best girl is waiting for you under an oak tree after the game while an apple pie cools on a nearby windowsill. You don’t watch Brian Urlacher to see him execute a perfect ankle tackle on Adrian Peterson; you watch him to see him try to force a snot bubble out of Peterson’s nose with a hard hit.

That brings us to the lawsuit that more than 2,000 former players filed Thursday against the NFL, claiming the league concealed information connecting football injuries to brain damage.

If fighters sued one of the governing bodies about the dangers of boxing, they would get laughed out of a courtroom. There’s a long line of former boxers who are ‘‘punch drunk,’’ which is a kind way of saying ‘‘brain-damaged and needing to be spoon-fed.’’ There was scientific research that told people the sport was dangerous. And boxers kept boxing anyway.

We’re finding out now that football might be just as dangerous and . . . hold it a second: Remind me why we’re surprised? Weren’t all the head-on collisions a hint?

I’ll cop to some mixed emotions here. I believe the former NFL players knew the risks of football while they were playing, and I believe most of them would do it all over again knowing what the latest research shows. How many current players have sworn off the game as the frightening data about brain injuries has come to light? Just about none.

But I also believe the NFL is the kind of monolithic corporation that would hide information to protect its hugely profitable product, just as I believe tobacco companies hid the hazards of smoking cigarettes from the public. Call it cynicism run amok, but there it is.

We’re watching a pitched battle over the honor of football, with some former and current players stepping up to defend it. Is this the hostage sympathizing with his kidnapper?

Former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker recently wrote a blog entry about why he would allow his son, if he had one, to play football. He talked about all the positive values the game instilled — teamwork, determination, resiliency, etc. All are indeed a byproduct of football, but they’re also a byproduct of other sports, pursuits and jobs that don’t involve people in hard helmets battering each other.

And if football is so good at building character, why do we see so many college and NFL players getting into trouble with the law? If you answer ‘‘brain trauma,’’ you’re adding one more reason not to play the sport.

As long as the possibility exists of heads hitting heads, there’s only so much you can do to make football safer. I’d love for someone to tell me the difference in force between a gloved fist hitting a face and two helmeted football players colliding at full speed. The former is considered acceptable; the
latter isn’t.

The brain moves around inside the skull like a cork would inside a bottle of water. No matter how thick the glass might be, the cork will bang against the sides if the bottle gets rattled. Football-helmet companies can make all the safety modifications they want, but they can’t stop the brain from sloshing around inside the cranium. Hence, concussions. And, hence, the risk of permanent brain damage, if you believe the research.

The players suing the NFL will have to prove the league hid information. And if the league did, it would be despicable. But when players say they weren’t aware about the possibility of head injuries, it’s like buying a house next to a nuclear reactor and being surprised when there’s an ‘‘event.’’

I still enjoy watching football. That means I knowingly take part in something that could ruin the lives of players. Maybe I should sue them for making me want to watch it.

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