- - Monday, February 11, 2019

“The reality is that this game [football] destroys people’s brains — not everyone’s, but a substantial number. It’s not a small number, it’s a considerable number. It destroys their brains.”

— Bob Costas, sportscaster

That statement, delivered in November 2017 at a University of Maryland journalism symposium, can be taken a few different ways.

You might argue that the link between football and brain damage is nonexistent. The NFL has embraced that position for decades, much like Big Tobacco did before it admitted the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Former running back Merril Hoge picked up the mantle last fall when he released “Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football.”

(It should be noted that Hoge was forced into retirement at age 29 after suffering multiple concussions — including one that sent him into cardiac arrest — and he won a medical malpractice lawsuit against a Chicago Bears doctor who failed to warn about the severity of concussions. I heard Hoge is working on a follow-up title in the “Brainwashed” series: “The Bad Science Behind Climate Change and the Plot to Destroy Fossil Fuels.)

If you believe a concession to reality is in order, you might stipulate that the link between football and brain damage has been overstated, the potential consequences can be mitigated, and the sport’s positives far outweigh those nagging negatives. The NFL adopted that approach with the 2012 rollout of “Heads Up Football,” an initiative created to a) make the game safer, and b) assuage parents’ fears (not necessarily in that order).

Christine Golic, wife of former NFL player and current ESPN personality Mike Golic, has been one of the cause’s leading evangelists, assuring moms across the country that improved equipment and techniques, along with rule changes, make the game safer than ever. Besides, her husband and sons didn’t have those advantages and they’re fine; football has been very, very good to the Golics.

Or, Costas’ statement might lead you to adopt another approach, a response that combines Hoge and Golic, and mixes in Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. Yes, football is tough and dangerous and making strides to reduce its damaging effects, Mr. Costas, but … “You can act like a man! What’s the matter with you?”

Johnny Fontaine was slapped and accused of “crying like a woman.” Today, the Godfather would call Costas a “snowflake” for displaying any uncertainty or unease toward the nation’s passion for football.

According to an espn.com article on Sunday, Costas’ growing discomfort with the sport led NBC to exclude him from its Super Bowl coverage last year, three months before the broadcast. It already was scheduled to be his final appearance as a Super Bowl host, but the network accelerated its plans after Costas spoke publicly three times in one week, first at Maryland, followed by remarks to the Concussion Legacy Foundation and in an interview on CNN.

In relaying his story to ESPN, Costas pointed out that he had made similar comments for years, expressing his ambivalence about the game’s sheer violence and our subsequent celebration of that violence, even before CTE became an issue. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he said. “That felt stupid to me.”

When the movie “Concussion” came out in 2015, Costas wasn’t allowed to share his on-air essay with his NBC audience. But he shared it with espn.com for Sunday’s article: “As much as we may try to push it into the background, there’s a kind of Russian roulette going on on the field,” he wrote. “We know that for all the game’s appeal, many of its participants will one day pay dearly for their part in our national obsession.”

Many of us — at least those who view players as flesh-and-blood human beings with actual lives and families off the field — want it both ways.

We want a safer game with fewer repercussions for the participants, but we don’t want penalties for hits that seem OK. We want more offense, but we don’t the defense to be neutered. We want to see “football,” but we don’t want it to be “football.”

For everyone else, the only problem is the wussification of America.

“Real men” play football (and rugby, while also engaging in mixed martial arts if they don’t box, too). They do it for our entertainment and their bank account, a fair exchange.

Gladiators gonna gladiate for the right price.

Just realize that enjoying it costs us more than money. Costas gave up a happy ending for his Hall of Fame career, but he had good reason to continue voicing his concerns.

“So I can sleep at night,” he said.

Tossing and turning doesn’t appear to be an issue for many fans. But it’s something to keep an eye on, especially as participation among youth continues to be an issue.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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