The NFL drove its creepy station wagon up to the playground Monday, rolled down the window, and said to the kids nearby, "Want a piece of candy?"
A stretch? Depends on how much damage you think teaching kids to play football can do, in light of the mounting evidence and mountains of lawsuits from high school, college and NFL players suing the league for brain damage.
The league threw a Hail Mary pass Monday when its charitable foundation donated a whopping $45 million to USA Football to expand the organization's Heads Up Football program that attempts to each a safer way to play the violent game.
This is different from the "Eyes Open" involuntary program that has been operating for the last five years or so – dead NFL player brains being cut open, suicides, and interviews from former stars who say they can't find their way home sometimes.
"There is a need for information and education," foundation chair Charlotte Jones Anderson said, announcing the donation at the NFL owners meeting. "We can really have a chance to do something very significant here by having a loud voice and a large presence, and developing a great program to make a difference in youth sports safety."
This is a loud voice and large presence all right -- $45 million worth.
To give you some perspective, the NFL salary cap in 1997 was $41 million. So this donation to save youth football – and make no mistake about it, that is what this is for – is more than the payroll of an NFL team less than 20 years ago.
The last time the Redskins won a Super Bowl, the 1991 team payroll was $25 million – nearly half of what the NFL has donated to save youth football.
"It is about showing people there is a correct way to play sports, so your children will be safe and will benefit," Anderson said. "You can't replace what children learn from teamwork, respecting coaches, taking direction, being able to be part of a team and learning to deal with success and failure. You can't learn that in the classroom."
Wow. The league is spending $45 million to convince parents in America that their children will be safe playing football. Nobody spends that kind of money unless they are desperately afraid of the fear in the heads and hearts of parents about football.
This "Heads Up Football" program is designed to "take the head out of tackling," using "master" trainers who teach it to coaches throughout the nation. Those coaches in turn instruct youth football players. The money will allow USA Football to hire about 70 more "master" trainers for youth football, as well as starting the program for high school football.
Reportedly, the $45 million will also be used to increase NFL flag football league – for those parents who still might believe real football is not safe enough for little Johnny -- for boys and girls from ages 5 to 17 .
"Any time there is more investment in player-safety course training, it's beneficial," Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football's executive director, said. "If a kid is taught consistently from 10 years old up to high school, that is tremendously important and a dramatic improvement in how football is taught."
Does it work, though? No one has a clue if this "master" trainer program of teaching a more zen-like approach to a violent game will save the lives of kids who turn into high school, college and pro football players.
But this is all about perception, not results. This is about addressing the real fears of parents who are now telling their children that they won't sign permission slips for them to play football – not as long as they keep reading about lawsuits from football players who hear voices in their heads.
Following the USA Football announcement, NBA owner Mark Cuban publicly laid out his reasons why the NFL is in trouble. You can take Cuban's diatribe with a grain of salt, the bleating of an owner with a big mouth and a bigger ego in a rival sport.
Even so, what was first on his list of reasons why the NFL is in trouble?
"I wouldn't want my son to play football, would you?" he wrote. "I'm sure helmet technology will improve over the next 10 years, but why risk it? There are plenty of sports to play. Plenty of ways to get exercise and if my son decided to do anything outside of sports and never pick up any ball of any kind, I'm fine with that. I can think of 1k things I would prefer him to get excited about doing...I don't think I'm alone. If we start to see a decline of popularity at the high school and then college level because kids choose other sports, it will hurt the interest in watching the NFL."
The league just spent $45 million hoping to change minds like those who may think like Cuban. He is right about this. He is not alone. There are parents who, after telling their kids not to take that candy, will also tell them to stay away from football.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of "The Sports Fix," noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.
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