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“There are people who don’t like football and are trying to use this to get rid of football,” said Mr. Flynn, author of “A Conservative History of the American Left” and a former high school football player. “They’re essentially killjoys. When the debate degenerates into banning the sport, it’s a cultural tic masquerading as a public health issue.”

Partisan football?

Similar sentiments surround first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy food advocacy and efforts to curb the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking, a pair of public health initiatives that have become culture war fodder — partisan footballs kicked around by liberals, conservatives and cable news bloviators alike.

The dispute over actual football has the potential to follow suit.

Consider Montana, where last year state legislators were unable to pass a bill based on a national model that requires strict post-concussion return-to-play guidelines for young athletes, instead settling on a watered-down mandate requiring local officials to develop “risk-addressing protocols” that local school districts are under no obligation to adopt.

According to a FoxSports.com report, lawmakers balked at mandatory guidelines, citing concerns about civil liberty.

“We were told parents already know the risk their children are in when they play football,” state Sen. Bill Landen, a Republican, told FoxSports. “They didn’t want the state coming in and issuing mandates on this or that.”

The proper place of government regulation — and of risk in society — was at the heart of a recent public debate held at New York University on the future of college football. Describing the potential for brain damage, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell argued that the sport should be banned, in part because schools have a paternalistic duty to protect their students; sportswriter and former college football player Jason Whitlock countered that America is a free country, and that citizens should have the freedom to enjoy things — such as alcohol, fast food and pornography — that aren’t necessarily good for them.

“We long ago decided as a nation that children will not have all adult freedoms until they reach a certain age,” said Michael Oriard, a former NFL player and retired professor of American literature and culture at Oregon State University. “Regarding pro football players knowing the risks and taking them freely, that’s a legitimate argument, even if it ignores the public costs if these players do become incapacitated later.”

Reminiscent of bickering over climate change, football reformers assert that current scientific evidence — such as a recent Virginia Tech study that found that 7- and 8-year-old football players can hit with as much force as college athletes — is strong enough to require major changes to the sport now; traditionalists, like retired NFL player Tim Green, want to see more proof. And much as contemporary conservatives decry a litigation explosion that erodes the personal responsibility ethic and enriches tort lawyers, online articles about more than 1,000 former players suing the NFL for failing to properly treat head trauma and disclose concussion risks are peppered with reader comments lambasting ex-athletes for trying to cash in.

“It’s not 100 percent of our readers, but it seems well over 50 percent who have the attitude of, ‘The players knew what they were getting into, I don’t want to hear any complaints that football is dangerous after you retire and run out of money,’ ” said Mike Florio, a former lawyer and owner of the popular NBC Sports website Profootballtalk.com. “These are the same people who would support tort reform. I don’t want to generalize, but I do get the impression that hard core football fans tend to be more conservative than liberal.”

Wrong lens?

Perhaps it’s inevitable in our binary political culture, but should football’s safety debate even be viewed through a left-right lens in the first place?

Mr. Oriard said politicizing the sport is “ridiculous, appalling and dangerous.” Mr. Flynn said it’s more accurate to see football’s current schism as a fight between those who played the game and those who did not.

Mr. Zirin said the best way to understand football is not as a sociocultural battlefield, but rather as a prosaic, potentially hazardous work environment.

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