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Mixed feelings on hard-hitting topic

This may be hard for you and me to believe, but there are people in this country who don't watch football. Life is not easy for them -- their neighbors point and whisper, the CIA is constantly tailing them and, of course, they have to pay higher taxes -- but they survive. Could you be one of them?

What would it take for you to give up football?

I don't mean this as one of those silly hypotheticals, like: Would you give up football for $1 million and a Klondike bar? This is a conscience-searching, soul-defining question. How much suffering should others endure for our entertainment?

A person who enjoys watching other people die is sick, a person who can't stand the sight of blood from a pin-prick is weak, and the rest of us are scattered on the spectrum between them. So what would it take? If one player died on the field in every NFL game, we would feel too guilty to watch. If one player suffered a season-ending injury in every NFL game ... well, that basically happens, and we watch. How bad would it have to get for us to look away?

With every passing week, there are new stories about former football players who can't walk, can't think straight or, most tragically, can't stand to live. I spent Monday afternoon reading about the suicide of former Penn lineman Owen Thomas, who may have suffered brain damage from playing football. I then spent Monday night marveling at Ravens linebacker RayLewis, now in his 15th year of hitting players so hard their ancestors feel it.

There are many reasons football is our most popular spectator sport -- it has the perfect pace, just the right amount of scoring and luck, and it's ideal for television, to name a few -- but high on the list is this: it has always seemed to feature the appropriate level of violence.

Players get drilled, but they almost always get up. At worst, they break a limb or are too woozy to return. But we don't see them killed and we rarely even see them bloodied as much as boxers.

We get three things out of this:

1. The undeniable visceral thrill of seeing a great hit.

2. The emotional attachment that comes with knowing these men are willing to endure pain for the game; it gives the games a gravitas that is missing from, say, an NBA game.

3. A clear conscience. We usually see the players get up. Truly awful, career-ending, I-can't-look-at-the-replay injuries (the most famous example: Joe Theismann's shattered leg) are rare enough that we can dismiss them as aberrations.

But it has become increasingly apparent that football features an inappropriate level of violence. We just don't see the effects of it right away. Most players do walk off the field after games. They pay the price in retirement, when they have served their purpose for us and are no longer flying across our televisions.

Maybe that's all that matters to us. If we saw players get paralyzed all the time, we would stop watching. (And they'd stop playing.) But when we know that so many players are headed for miserable retirements ... well, that's easy to block out. It's a cold and callous approach, but we all take it, on some level: out of sight, out of mind. And when we hear the story of former Steelers center MikeWebster (dementia, depression, dead at 50) ... um, they chose to play, and look at all the guys who live long seemingly healthy lives, and didn't RogerStaubach just say today's game is "wussy" anyway? (He did.)

This is the elephant in the stadium, growing larger every month, with every news story and scientific analysis of a deceased player's brain. NFL commissioner RogerGoodell has said concussions are a high priority for the league, and he may be sincere. But Goodell, like the rest of us, is caught between the violent reality of the business and his own self-interest. In his case, he wants to expand the NFL regular season to 18 games, which would subject his players to 12 percent more violence, but would also mean millions in new revenue, which could stave off a work stoppage next year.

Goodell's recent contention that the league already plays 20 games -- 16 in the regular season and four in the preseason -- is disingenuous. Nobody plays all four preseason games, kickoff-to-clock expiring. And teams take precautions in the preseason they never take in the regular season -- offensive coordinators are more likely to max-protect for their starting quarterback, and defensive coordinators don't want to show their best blitz packages.

Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, the owners and the players might tell themselves next spring that they're getting the problem under control. It's true we know far more about concussions than ever before. It's also true that last weekend Eagles coach AndyReid put two players back in the game after they suffered concussions, and Notre Dame quarterback DayneCrist played one drive when he was groggy and had no vision in his right eye.

This latest story, about that Penn lineman named Owen Thomas (Do you remember his name? Did you click on the link?) was one of the most disturbing stories yet. According to the New York Times (which has done exemplary work on the subject), Thomas was in the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, whose only known cause is repetitive brain trauma. The key phrase in the story: Thomas "must have developed from concussions he dismissed or from the thousands of subconcussive collisions he withstood in his dozen years of football, most of them while his brain was developing."

In other words: Owen Thomas probably did not die because of a single hit or ignorant trainers, but simply because he chose to play football.

This is starting to feel a little bit like Jurassic Park -- you can talk about improvements and fixes and doing a better job, but at the end of the day, maybe humans are not meant to play such a violent game or own dinosaur theme parks. Maybe the mere act of playing football from childhood to adulthood is more than a lot of bodies can bear.

I'm having a hard time shaking the story of Owen Thomas, but I suspect I'll block it out by the time the games roll around this weekend. I make my living as a sportswriter. I watch football mostly because it's my job. At least, that's what I tell myself.

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