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Is Football Nearing a Cultural Crossroads as Concussions Grow?

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Football, the game that sacked baseball as the national pastime, may not exist as we know it in 10 years — as evidence mounts that brain damage from big hits has infected the sport from the NFL all the way down to youth leagues, experts assert.

The pipeline of future players is shrinking. High school football participation has dropped by nearly 2 percent since 2008-09. The number of Pop Warner players — who can start playing at age 5 — decreased by almost 10 percent between 2010 and 2012, ESPN has reported.

Some adults, including retired NFL stars Troy Aikman, Brett Favre and Bart Scott, question whether boys should play the game due to the head-injury risks. President Obama has said, if he had a son, he’d “have to think long and hard” before allowing him to play football.

“I think you may not see football in 10 years,” said Dr. Kim Harmon, head football physician and professor of sports medicine at the University of Washington.

Harmon, who has spent 30 years on football sidelines as a doctor, and whose own sons played football, believes it may not just be parental worry that bleeds the lower echelons of the game of new recruits. She also cites legal liability.

School districts and leagues like Pop Warner aren’t money-making enterprises, Harmon said, adding those bastions of youth football may not be able to afford liability insurance and lawyers.

Last week, a Wisconsin woman named Debra Pyka filed a lawsuit against the Pop Warner organization, blaming her 25-year-old son's suicide on brain injuries he sustained as a boy while playing tackle football.

“A mother saying that early childhood head trauma [led to her son’s suicide] is not a ridiculous claim,” said Michael Oriard, who played football at Notre Dame, and spent four years in the NFL playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“But we just don’t have evidence of how that happens or how often it happens," Oriard told NBC News.

Oriard, a retired college professor, has spent years studying and writing about the culture of football and the issue of injuries. He still enjoys watching football, he said.

But he now favors no contact, or flag football, for kids until at least age 12.

Even with such restrictions — and even with tightened, in-game safety rules from the NFL to kids' leagues — unanswered questions remain about what else is needed to make football “safe enough,” Oriard said.

“Parents have a desperate need for clarity,” Oriard said. Without that clarity, “parents of kids who have other opportunities,” may stop playing football, while “those who play on regardless of the risks are more likely to be kids who do not have other opportunities.

"So the nightmare scenario for the NFL, many years down the road, especially if we are aware of how damaging the game still is despite efforts to make it safer, we would have literal gladiatorial games with the relatively privileged watching the relatively unprivileged destroy their brains for our entertainment.”

The NFL announced Monday that Dr. Betsy Nabel, president of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will become the league’s chief health and medical adviser, an entirely new position. She’ll report directly to Commissioner Roger Goodell. Her duties include identifying “areas for the NFL to enhance player safety,” the league said.

Nabel’s hire follows a series of player deaths tied to lasting damage from repetitive concussions. Those cases include retired stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Both committed suicide. Both were posthumously diagnosed with a brain disorder, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a dementia-like disease afflicting athletes exposed to multiple head traumas.

Last week, a judge ruled that changes are needed in the NFL's $765-million concussion-lawsuit settlement with former players.

The NFL has also sponsored an organization called USA Football to promote the sport among youth. It, too, has established a “Medical Advisory Committee."

Rules changes at all levels aim to “take the head out of the game” by mandating, for example, how players should and should not tackle.

But some, like Hall-of-Fame running back Tony Dorsett, argue that football is inherently dangerous, and trying to make it “safe” softens the game to such a degree that it’s no longer football.

Dorsett, who has himself been diagnosed with football-related brain trauma that has lead to depression and memory loss, told a Dallas radio station recently, “Sometimes I look at some of the rules now and I’m like, ‘C’mon man. This is football.’” Dorsett said he grudgingly favored the changes in the name of safety, and would let his son play.

If TV ratings were the only gauge of football's modern popularity, the game would appear to have nothing to fear. This year’s Super Bowl set a new U.S. TV audience record — 114.4 million viewers. The NFL remains a $10-billion-a-year enterprise.

And some of the drop-off in youth-football participation is fueled competition from other sports. Further, to be fair, both soccer and lacrosse carry a significant of head trauma, Dr. Kim Harmon points out.

But history has shown that sports can dominate the public imagination then fade with time.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, boxing was one of the most popular American sports. Fighters like Max Baer, Joe Lewis, and Sonny Liston were national stars. Today, it’s likely only a small minority could quickly identify the world heavyweight champions: Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder.

Damaged by corruption, competition from other sports like mixed martial arts, and distaste among some for the inherent violence and resulting injuries — most famously Muhammad Ali’s battle with Parkinson's disease — boxing is now a niche market.

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