Players, coaches defend NFL risks
Well, this is not what the NFL wanted during its glorious Super Bowl week: Baltimore Ravens defensive back Bernard Pollard predicting the league will be extinct in 30 years, brought down by too many rules policing player safety and fans turning away from a watered-down product.
Then there is the President of the United States on the eve of the New Orleans Super Bowl bacchanal, openly questioning whether he would allow a son of his to play football, a game he loves but he believes must change to address the mounting toll of its violence.
Two strong opinions, seemingly at odds. But are they? Both Pollard and Barack Obama are reacting to the same reality of the NFL as it is played today — quick, fast, hard, with men bigger and stronger than ever before. Players who are performing as they were taught, yet who also appear to be destroying each other at an alarming rate.
“Thirty years from now, I don't think it will be in existence," Pollard told CBSsports.com, just before his Ravens left Baltimore for Super Bowl XLVII for a date with the San Francisco 49ers.
"I could be wrong. It's just my opinion. But I think with the direction things are going — where (NFL rules makers) want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else — there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it."
Offered Obama, in an interview with the New Republic: “I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.
"In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much."
What do the players suiting up for Super Bowl XLVII think? They know they love the game of football. They love playing it. They say they accept the risks so they can reap the rewards.
These are Super Bowl participants, so their affection for football and the NFL will never be more pronounced than it is this week. But the reactions to the strong comments of Pollard and Obama were striking in their passion. Let’s hear what some of them had to say:
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, on Obama’s statement: “I respect it for the simple fact that this is a very physical and dangerous sport that we play, especially considering that with the concussions and the current findings of Junior Seau, a parent would be reluctant (to let) his or her child play football. I think if you play the game right and you play it appropriately, that injuries are a part of the game.”
Would Suggs allow his son to play football?
“Absolutely, but it would have to be his choice. Football isn’t for everybody. If my son Duke decided and came to me and said, ‘I want to play football,’ then I would let him play, most definitely.”
What does Suggs think about the dangers of playing football?
“I don’t play with fear,'' he said. "I don’t think about the game like that for the simple fact that I’ve been playing this game since I was 7 years old. The way we play, it comes with the territory.
“Every man knows what we’re signing up for. If my son decided he wanted to play football, I would respect his decision and just caution him to play the game correctly and to do things according to technique.”
Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach, was asked about the president’s reluctance to let one of his children play football. His response was quick.
“Well, I have a 4-month-, soon to be 5-month-old son, Jack Harbaugh. And if President Obama feels that way, then there will be a little less competition for Jack Harbaugh when he gets older,” Harbaugh said Monday in New Orleans.
The room erupted in laughter.
“That’s the first thing that comes into my mind,” Harbaugh said. “It’s still early. Jack is, like I said, only 5 months old. But he’s a really big kid. He’s got an enormous head. We don’t have 40 (time) on him yet, but his wingspan is a plus-one.
“As soon as he grows into that head, he’s going to be something. It’s early. But expectations are high for young Jack.”
Jim’s brother John will be his adversary on Super Bowl Sunday, coaching the Ravens. But the Brothers Harbaugh are in agreement about football. They love and appreciate the game.
“I don’t agree with that (President Obama’s opinion), but I like Jim’s comment. Jim said that (Jim’s son) little Jack is going to be playing football, right? That’s one less kid to compete with. I like that comment,” John Harbaugh said Monday after his brother offered his take.
“Football is a great game. Anybody that’s played the game knows what a great game it is. What it provides for young people, what it provides for people like me, is an opportunity to grow as a person. It’s challenging, it’s tough, it’s hard. There’s no game like football. It’s the type of sport that brings out the best in you, it kind of shows you who you are.
“When you get done playing football, my dad tells this story all the time about a guy named Ralph — maybe he’ll share it with you this week — basically you have an opportunity to make your first tackle or make your first block or do something in football, because it’s such a tough thing; it’s a little bit of a manhood test a little bit. When you get done you say, ‘You know what, I’m a football player. I play the game of football, and that makes me special a little bit.’
“I think it’s a huge part of our educational system in this country, and it’s going to be around for a long time.”
Players such as 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith said he and his NFL brethren are aware of the risks associated with playing a violent and potentially dangerous sport. They accept those risks.
“It’s a physical game,'' Smith said. "Everybody plays hard. And guys get hit sometimes. That’s what we all know coming into the game. We all signed up for it.
“It’s not like we signed up and thought we were going to play tennis, you know? We came out to play football.”
Would Smith let his kids play football?
“Yeah — if they want to. I’d let them do whatever they want.”
Smith’s teammate, guard Alex Boone, agreed.
“I’d let my kid play, absolutely,'' Boone said. "It’s a physical sport, nonetheless. You grow up understanding that it’s physical, and every year it gets different.
"It takes a different kind of guy to play this game, I think. There are going to be injuries, there are going to be problems. But we’re working on trying to correct them.”
Boone was asked whether the NFL must make significant changes to promote safety, and perhaps ensure its future. He shook his head.
“I mean, I don’t know how you do that,” Boone said. “I’ve just never understood how you change the game when you have guys who are getting bigger, faster, stronger, every year. The technology and the equipment just has to keep going and going.”
Would Boone stop his child from playing football?
“No, not at all. If he wants to play, he can play. He can do whatever he wants. He’s his own man,” Boone said. “With little kids, you don’t really have to worry about them that much. But as you get older, you have to understand the game better. I think the NFL is doing a great job with that right now with the little kids, trying to teach them now, young, so that they understand.
“But, it’s just football. It’s going to be physical.”
And it’s going to be controversial, from here on out. Perhaps the Super Bowl stage is the appropriate platform for this uncomfortable dialogue. Commissioner Roger Goodell must face the contention squarely and address all sides.
Meanwhile, the Ravens and the 49ers will show us on Sunday why we ultimately put the debate aside one day a year. There’s a championship to be won. And that’s one thing everyone loves.