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MORRISSEY: NFL must save players from themselves

Updated: March 2, 2013 11:46AM



NEW ORLEANS — A storm is coming, but many NFL players and coaches are dressed in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops while doing their best to ignore its approach.

The concussion issue isn’t going anywhere, other than forward. Player safety has taken center stage at the Super Bowl, thanks, in part, to President Barack Obama, who recently weighed in on head injuries in football.

Obama told the New Republic he would have had to think ‘‘long and hard’’ about allowing his son, if he had one, to play tackle football. He also said he thinks the game will change gradually to reduce violence.

If the NFL could have issued a statement that reflected corporate eye-rolling, it would have. Now the president is talking about concussions? Just before the Super Bowl, that monument to football, TV commercials, gambling and all other things American?

Yes, now. Why, was there a better time to address the issue?

For too long, the NFL’s approach to cutting down on head injuries was to stick its head in the sand. There has been more awareness in the last few years, thanks to research showing the brains of some late football players resemble cauliflower gone bad. Now scientists have come up with a way to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease tied to head trauma, in live brains, rather than post-mortem.

The game will have to change.

But if you had spent time here the last few days, you would have heard a lot of people who don’t understand that. It would be fair to say that, regardless of political bent, many players and coaches aren’t impressed with Obama’s opinions.

‘‘I don’t think anybody really cares what he says about football,’’ 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ‘‘I think he’s got bigger issues he needs to be worried about.’’

True. Weigh NFL head injuries against, say, the unpredictability of North Korea, and you’re probably not going to lose sleep over helmet-to-helmet hits. But it doesn’t mean the president should ignore the reality that the game is destroying lives or that kids are at risk.

Current NFL players understand football is a violent game. They don’t seem to understand that being spoon-fed strained fruit 30 years from now is a possibility.

The NFL is scared to death of finding out that its game, so much faster and hard-hitting than it used to be, might be creating a generation of post-concussion zombies. It also is scared to death that reducing violence will take away the allure of the game for fans, who keep owners rich.

The league doesn’t have a choice anymore. The only question is the degree to which the game will have to change. Does it mean a different way of tackling? Does it mean something as drastic as no helmets?

That’s not what the people in the game are thinking about.

I asked 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman if he worried about the long-term health of Frank Gore, a man who plays with little regard for his own safety.

‘‘The only thing I can say about that is, ‘Get your head on a swivel and be the hammer, not the nail,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘One of the things we emphasize is you want to be the hitter, not the hittee. You’re going to protect yourself.’’

Does he worry about himself?

‘‘There were times you would be concussed, and you’d stay in the game,’’ said Rathman, the fullback on two 49ers Super Bowl teams in the 1980s. ‘‘You would shake it off. That was my mentality. I wasn’t coming out of the game. I didn’t care what the situation was. . . . That just shows you how smart I am.’’

Ravens safety Ed Reed caused a stir the other day when he said the late Junior Seau, who committed suicide while suffering from CTE, knew what he was getting into when he decided to play football.

‘‘He signed up for it,’’ Reed said.

No, he didn’t. From the time he first put on the pads as a kid to when he retired after a stellar career, Seau didn’t know the damage the game would do to his head. But Reed might be right when he says Seau would have done it all over again on the football field, given the chance.

That’s what you walk away with here — that even if they knew the darkest risks, the players would keep playing. It’s another reminder they need to be saved from themselves.



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