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Sorry, parents, but football always will be dangerous game

Richard Dent is part lawsuit thalleges NFL teams gave players illegal drugs numb pakeep them field. | Sun-Times

Richard Dent is part of a lawsuit that alleges NFL teams gave players illegal drugs to numb pain and keep them on the field. | Sun-Times

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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:26AM

So you want your kid to grow up to be a professional football player. You’d like to introduce him as ‘‘my son, the gladiator.’’ Do I have that right, Mr. and Mrs. Football Parent?

If you think a pro career would be the epitome of success, what every proud mom and dad should hope his son achieves, then you’re probably in need of a head slap.

One arrived last week in the form of a lawsuit filed by a group of retired players, including three Bears from the 1985 Super Bowl squad. The suit claims NFL teams gave players illegal drugs to numb pain and hid the extent of injuries from them to keep them on the field.

I know: Those things happened years ago. Times have changed. Teams have evolved in their attitude toward injuries.

Or have they? Would you be willing to bet your son’s long-term health on it? Would you be OK with the possibility that you might be much healthier at 75 than your son is at 50?

I’m not saying you should bar your kid from playing the game. I’m saying you should be brutally honest with yourself about the risks.

The truth is that pro football is a car accident that never ends. The truth is that, if your son happens to be the one in a million who makes the NFL, he will be surrounded by people who look at him as a piece of meat.

I can’t speak to the merits of the lawsuit. I do know that there’s a drive, whether it’s self-propelled or team-propelled, that keeps players on the field at all costs or, short of that, gets them back on the field after injury as quickly as possible. I know that’s a recipe for long-term suffering.

I also know there is no getting around injuries in football. There is no getting around concussions. And there is no getting around the fact that many people are physical and mental wrecks after they’re done playing.

Football is a brutal game that can affect your quality of life. That might mean a knee that requires replacing 20 years after a career ends. That might mean a brain that goes haywire.

It won’t happen to your son? Really?

I’ve talked with parents whose children play football, and much of what I’ve seen and heard from them is denial. When the topic of concussions comes up, they almost physically turn away from the conversation. With proper tackling techniques, better helmets and more non-contact drills, it’s a safe sport, they say.

No, it’s not. And here’s the thing to remember: It can’t be — certainly not at the professional level. Not when played at high speed by big, strong men.

The concussion problem is much more out in the open now, which is a good thing. It might help explain why participation in Pop Warner football fell 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, the biggest two-year drop since the organization began compiling statistics.

But concussions aren’t the only problem. Nobody was harder on Lance Armstrong about his use of performance-enhancing drugs than I was, but he had nothing on pro football players. PEDs are a fact of life in the NFL. Players caught using them get four-game suspensions, then go back to being 325-pound monsters. Nobody seems to care.

Are coaches openly telling players to juice? Some things don’t have to be stated. A 280-pound college offensive lineman knows he needs to get bigger if he wants to play in the NFL. Hmmm, how to do that? They know the easiest way. Never mind the research that shows steroids and human growth hormone can cause serious physical problems later in life, including heart and liver damage.

Those ’85 Bears we laud so often don’t look so good these days. Jim McMahon, part of the suit last week with Richard Dent and Keith Van Horne, says he has severe headaches and memory problems. Dave Duerson committed suicide, perhaps because of brain injuries suffered during his career. Even Walter Payton, who passed away from bile-duct cancer, suffered from depression while abusing painkillers after his career was over, according to a 2011 book.

No one can say for sure what role football played in their difficulties, but parents might want to rethink the American dream they have for their children.

You want to roll the dice with your son’s health? Go right ahead. Just stop kidding yourself.

Football is a nasty game with consequences. Always has been, always will be.

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