Football, the sport that signifies and promotes violence, is at a crossroads that threatens the way the game will be played and who will play it in years to come.
This is not to say the NFL as we know it will not exist in, say, 15 years. But there is a distinct possibility that it will not look the same.
The more stories like NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett’s that we hear, the more people like LeBron James and even former NFL stars like Bart Scott will forbid their sons from playing the sport.
When ex-football players steer their kids away from the game, you cannot receive a more telling indictment on the sport’s future.
Dorsett is the latest, sad and scary example of what years of enduring the physical nature of men colliding into each other can do to the brain.
Fifteen months ago, Dorsett was diagnosed with CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease scientists contend is the result of head trauma. CTE is linked to dementia and depression because of a buildup of tau, an abnormal protein that strangles brain cells in areas that control memory, emotions and other functions.
Former players with CTE, like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, among others, have killed themselves. And Dorsett said last year in a television interview that he has had suicidal thoughts.
“I would like to think I’m smart enough to not do it,” he said at the time.
Dorsett is often lucid and can perfectly convey his situation. He cited football as the reason he’s ill.
“I signed up for this when, I guess, I started playing football so many years ago,” Dorsett told 1310 The Ticket in Dallas. “But, obviously, not knowing that the end was going to be like this. But I love the game. The game was good to me. It’s just unfortunate that I’m going through what I’m going through.”
At 60, the former Dallas Cowboys star and 1978 Heisman Trophy winner at Pittsburgh said he is engaged in an effort to prolong his life.
“I’m in the fight, man. I’m not just laying around letting this overtake me,” he said. “I’m fighting. I’m in the battle. I’m hoping we can reverse this thing somehow.”
Dorsett last year talked about being on a flight to Los Angeles and suddenly not realizing where he was traveling. He said on the radio show that he at times has trouble managing his anger toward his wife and daughters.
“It’s very frustrating at times for me. I’ve got a good team of people around me, my wife and kids, who work with me,” he said. “When you’ve been in this town for so long and I have to go to some place I’ve been going to for many, many, many years, and then all of a sudden I forget how to get there. Those things are frustrating when it comes to those things.
“I understand that I’m combating it, trying to get better. But, you know, some days are good. Some days are bad.”
The bad days are what scares even NFL players. Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers was asked about youths playing football, and he said, “It’s fun.” When asked about his child playing the game, Finley flipped.
“Not at all,” he said. “You said an 8-year-old, someone else’s kid. I didn’t say mine. It would be different, but I’m not going to let my kids play just cause of the things I’ve been through in the game and what I have seen. So, they can play tennis, golf and all of that, soccer.”
Scott said in 2012, before he retired: “I don’t want my son to play football. I play football so he won’t have to. With what is going on, I don’t know if it’s really worth it.”
James, the NBA superstar who flourished in high school football, was unapologetic in his position. “Right now there’s no need for it,” James said to ESPN in November. “There’s enough sports they can play. They play basketball. They play soccer. They play everything else but football and hockey.
“It’s a safety thing. As a parent you protect your kids as much as possible. I don’t think I’m the only one that’s not allowing his kids to play football, it’s just that I’m LeBron James and it gets put in the headlines for no reason.”
The headlines of former players’ physical and mental struggles will not go away soon. Players on the field this season will have to deal with CTE in years to come. The NFL is working to protect players through rule changes and advanced equipment.
But the pure nature of violent collision can only be minimized, if that, and certainly not prevented. There always will be parents and kids who believe the worst case scenario cannot happen to them. Or they believe the risk is worth the reward. So, there always will be players. But at what expense—to lives and the game?