FENNO: Ravens hitman Bernard Pollard embodies a league in conflict

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Truth can be an inconvenient thing and perhaps no more so than Bernard Pollard’s bleak assessment of the NFL’s future days before the Super Bowl’s glitz is unleashed.

“The only thing I’m waiting for and, Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen is a guy dying on the field,” the Baltimore Ravens safety told CBS Sports recently. “We’ve had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for and it sucks.

“Like I said, I pray it never happens, but you’ve got guys who are 350 pounds running 4.5 and 4.4s [in the 40-yard dash], and these owners and coaches want scout-run blockers and linemen to move walls. At the same time, they tell you, ‘Don’t hit here, and don’t hit there, or we’ll take your money.’ Like I said, I hope I’m wrong, but I just believe one day there’s going to be a death that takes place on the field because of the direction we’re going.”

You could ignore Pollard and, instead, lose yourself in the $4 million television commercials and Beyonce’s halftime performance and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos (not to mention his ability to execute the read-option). Ignore the warning, though, and you’re ignoring a hard reality about the men who are our modern-day gladiators.

Pollard is why we love football.

Pollard is also why the game is in trouble.

No rule change, no addition of thigh and knee pads, no $30 million donation to the National Institutes of Health, no lockerroom posters warning of the long-term consequences of head injuries, no public service announcements about concussions, no player fines, no piece of high-tech equipment, no campaign of media spin can remove football’s inherent violence.

That violence once drove the NFL to market videos of its biggest and baddest hits with names like “Moment of Impact” and “Strike Force,” like hits that have defined Pollard’s career. The nickname “Bone Crusher” followed him from Purdue. He understands football’s bargain: sacrifice your body to feed your family.

But what is the price? What if the problem isn’t how the game is structured, but the game itself?

Against the New England Patriots last week, Pollard devastated running back Stevan Ridley with a legal hit. As Ridley twitched on the ground, the Ravens celebrated. Another hit above the neck to Wes Welker cost Pollard a $15,000 fine. That’s how he plays.

But Pollard doesn’t think the NFL will exist in 30 years, unable to find a balance between safety and the on-field violence that entertains, even transfixes, our country. The violence and the game are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other. And, truth be told, we love it.

“Guys are getting fined, and they’re talking about, ‘Let’s take away the strike zone’ and ‘Take the pads off’ or ‘Take the helmets off,’” Pollard said. “It’s going to be a thing where fans aren’t going to want to watch it anymore.”

All you have to do is look over the 4,078 former players suing the NFL over head injuries to discover the deaths Pollard predicted have already started. Of at least 40 deceased plaintiffs, the cause of death was available for 30.

Shane Dronett and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling and Junior Seau and Andre Waters killed themselves.

Tom McHale and Alfred Oglesby and Curtis Whitley overdosed.

Ollie Matson and David Lunceford and Ernie Stautner and Ralph Wenzel suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Pete Duranko and Wally Hilgenberg had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The carnage goes on.

These are lives, not statistics. They’re shredded like the brains of dozens of former players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head injuries. We consign them to highlight tapes after they leave the field, forgetting the broken bodies and minds that can follow.

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety essentially slapped a warning label on the NFL last week. In a letter to retired players, the federal agency summarized the jarring, already-known statistics that the rate of brain and nervous system disorders is three times as high among players as the general population.

The grim studies, lawsuits and CTE diagnoses, complete with disturbing before-and-after slides, have become as routine as cliche-ridden postgame press conferences. Pollard isn’t a doctor or lawyer or long-forgotten former player. He is one of the NFL’s feared hitmen, about to play on his sport’s biggest stage, and he believes, eventually, the game will claim a life on the field.

Is the NFL worth this?

That’s not just a question for Pollard to answer. It’s one for us, too.

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