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Patrick Hruby

Junior Seau, ESPN's Ashley Fox Football's Brain Trauma Crisis

The fix isn't in

I think ESPN writer Ashley Fox is making a wise choice. An eminently understandable one, too. In the wake of Junior Seau's suicide -- and rampant speculation that the popular former NFL linebacker's death is related to football-induced brain damage -- Fox has penned a column in which she states that her son will never play football:

... My little guy will have to find some other sport -- any other sport -- to play. Hoops. Baseball. Soccer. Tennis. Golf. Lacrosse. Whatever. But not football. Not while I am breathing ...

This isn't a risky sentiment for a mother to hold -- to the contrary, it's completely risk-adverse, and with good reason, given that football's inherent violence can be hazardous to your mental health. However, it is a risky sentiment for a longtime professional football writer to express publicly, given that the sport she won't subject her child to is the same pastime whose all-encompassing popularity largely pays her bills, as well as big chunk of the freight for anyone involved in sports media.

As such, I applaud Fox. She joins a growing chorus that includes fellow ESPN writer Michael Wilbon and, to an extent, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner and current quarterback Drew Brees. That said, I have a few small bones to pick with something else Fox wrote -- bones I pick not out of spite, but sadness and frustration:

... The NFL is at a crossroads. It has to fix the problem. The league needs to throw as much money as it takes at research and development. Buy in 100 percent to dealing with concussions and taking care of retired players. Find out what is going on, and fix it. If the league doesn't do it, Congress might.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety his mantra. He crushed the Saints for operating a bounty system, and the harsh penalties ensure that the practice will cease. But he must do more.
For a culture to change, there has to be a face, and there isn't a more relevant face for this culture change than Junior Seau ...

I've written this before and I'll write it again: the problem with football vis-a-vis brain trauma is not cultural. It is not a matter of poor tackling technique or loose helmets or misguided macho or overzealously launching oneself like a human missile in order to collect a locker room bounty payment. The problem is a matter of physics and biology. Of applied force, mass times acceleration; of gelatinous brain tissue smashing into skull casings; of sheared axons and tau protein and electrochemical disruption.

In short, the problem is getting hit. And hitting is football. Hitting isn't just baked into the game; hitting is the whole point of the exercise. Hitting is why the NFL is a multibillion-dollar national obsession and flag football places a distant second behind Ultimate Frisbee in campus intramurals.

So yeah: research and development is great if you're building a new iPhone. I'm not sure what it can do for America's game.

After all, there is no magic helmet that can prevent the brain from moving inside the skull. There is no magic pill that repairs CTE. There are many things that the NFL -- and the sport in general -- can and should do, right now: reduce practice contact; throw money at brain injury treatment and therapy; accept liability instead of trying to pawn it off on the rest of society; end pee-wee football; seriously rethink whether tradition, pleasure and entertainment value are worth having high school and college kids batter each other's heads for sport. Of course, none of this fixes anything; it simply reduces risk while adding a modicum of non-profit motive morality. Player safety may be Roger Goodell's mantra, but when it comes to inevitable blows to the head and the human brain, said mantra is extremely relative.

Football not basketball. It ain't crew. Football is boxing. It's MMA. Nobody needs to "find out what is going on." We already know enough to know: the sport causes brain damage in too many of its participants. We love it anyway. Or maybe not -- maybe we love it because of the hurt. No matter. The question Fox raises -- would you let your son play football? -- doesn't just apply to individual mothers. It applies to all of us.