Illegal contact: Nanny state regulators to blow the whistle on football?

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Is football the newest front in America’s culture wars?

Rush Limbaugh seems to think so.

Three times in the past six months, the conservative radio host eschewed his usual targets to warn listeners that the sport is under attack, besieged by liberals and threatened with extinction.

“It’s not going to be long before the wusses, the New Castrati in our society are going to suggest that football be banned, that tackle football be banned,” Mr. Limbaugh said during a broadcast in December.

Hyperbole aside, Mr. Limbaugh may have a point. Long a refuge from national political polarization — Tom Brady’s quarterback rating is just as awesome in the red states; our fantasy squads are equally as hopeless in the blue states — football recently has been engulfed in a high-profile public debate about its safety and viability, an argument that echoes previous cultural clashes over everything from cigarettes to semi-automatic weapons.

“I think what we have with football right now is a very old debate in our society,” said Dave Zirin, who writes about the politics of sports for the Nation and authored “A People’s History of Sports in the United States.” “In some ways it’s an argument between individual choice and state intervention.

“In one camp, you have conservatives who are almost like libertarians in terms of certain freedoms. Then you have the kind of nanny-state approach of saying the state needs to step in and remove people’s toys because they are so inherently harmful. We saw the same lines around Prohibition and issues like motorcycle helmets.”

A bubbling debate

For much of the past half century, football has served as an apolitical uniter, the athletic equivalent of apple pie. In the red-state South, the college game is an unofficial civic religion; in blue states such as New York and California, the National Football League is wildly popular; in large cities and small towns alike, high school football teams serve as community totems; from coast to coast, Super Bowl Sunday has become a de facto national holiday.

Recent medical research, however, suggests that football — violent by design — is much more hazardous to the brain health of its participants than once believed.

At every level of the sport, studies indicate, players risk cognitive damage through concussions and repetitive sub-concussive hits to the head, neither of which can be prevented by wearing protective helmets. Short term effects can include headaches, dizziness, confusion and irrational behavior; long term effects can include memory loss, depression, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an Alzheimer’s-like disease previously associated with former prizefighters.

Last year, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson made national headlines after committing suicide by shooting himself in the chest, the better to donate his brain to science; researchers subsequently found signs of CTE. The same disease has been found in the brains of other deceased football players — including some who suffered mental illness and/or took their own lives — and when popular former NFL linebacker Junior Seau killed himself earlier this month, a bubbling national debate erupted.

Retired NFL quarterback Kurt Warner and other former and current professional players wondered if football was safe for their children. ESPN columnist Ashley Fox was one of many writers to declare that her son would never play the sport. Some argued that football needs radical alteration to reduce physical contact. On ABC’s “This Week,” conservative pundit George Will said the game was in trouble, because fans would increasingly view it as akin to ancient Roman gladiatorial combat.

Others pushed back. Former NFL fullback Merrill Hoge — whose playing career was cut short by concussions — called Mr. Warner’s comments “uneducated” and “unacceptable,” arguing that football is relatively safe and that inactivity-related obesity is a greater threat to children than football-induced brain injuries. Mr. Limbaugh framed the debate as political, likening concern about the sport’s safety to “the Sierra Club calling to ban the SUV” and accusing “well-intentioned liberals” of attacking a sport they “think is too risky and dangerous.”

In an American Spectator article, conservative author Daniel J. Flynn echoed Mr. Hoge and Mr. Limbaugh. Noting that football causes fewer deaths per year than skiing and swimming and citing a study that football players live longer than their nonplaying male counterparts, he concluded that while “football is good for you,” “being a wuss” is not.

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