A less fun NFL kickoff

OTL: Football At A Crossroads: Keeping In "Toon" (7:56)

Former NFL receiver Al Toon and his son, Nick, talk about the game of football as Nick embarks on his rookie season with the New Orleans Saints. (7:56)

Joe Namath, one of football's original pop stars, had a great line when explaining why he played football despite painful knee problems and an assortment of other injuries.

"When you win," Namath said, "nothing hurts."

Hurt. Pain. Those words have been imbedded in football culture forever. Football players always have used their ability to withstand pain as a way to prove they're worthy of playing the sport.

It's their identity.

But as another NFL season unfolds, hurt and pain mean something else entirely now.

It's no longer a badge of honor.

It's a reminder of suffering.

The pain experienced by football players once was hidden. It was simply a dirty inconvenience, like a gnat buzzing around your nose. It was just the cost of entertainment.

Now, in gross, uncomfortable detail, we know what football players mentally and physically endure to play a sport with which this entire nation is obsessed.

I usually rejoice at the start of the NFL season.

Now, it just doesn't feel the same.

Oh, I still love football. And I won't stop watching the games. In fact, this season I'll have an even more candid view of what happens to players on the field as the sideline reporters for ESPN's Friday night football coverage.The key first downs, fourth-quarter drives, and goal-line stops all will remain important. And even though I covered college football as a beat writer for six years, in my new role I've already witnessed a few tackles that have made me wince.

But with each thunderous collision and violent tackle, I'll wonder about the long-term damage.
When a player goes down now, the gravity of that isn't easy to overlook.

Hopefully this doesn't sound too insensitive, but those were things that I never cared about before.
ESPN produced a weeklong, cross-platform series, "Football at a Crossroads," which examined the health issues surrounding football at all levels -- from youth to professional.

Some of the stories -- such as the one on how an improper tackle resulted in Pop Warner player Donnovan Hill breaking his neck and being permanently paralyzed -- are simply devastating.

ESPN's series is just the summarization of a growing body of research and the increasing knowledge that countless football players have either died young or struggled to live meaningful lives after their careers ended.

Thousands of former players have banded together to file a lawsuit against the NFL, accusing the league of concealing information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries.

This massive lawsuit obviously has had a significant impact on how the game is officiated, and surely it was a factor in the heavy punishment the Saints received for the bounty scandal. It's in the NFL's best interests to clean up the sport, even though that may not save teams from paying colossal damages to the players who believe the league purposely hid the dangers of the sport to grow the game.

The increased emphasis on making the game safer has made everyone more aware and sensitive. But the burgeoning awareness has made players such as Namath seem less like heroes and more like fools.

Yes, the players willingly choose to play this game. Many of them make millions doing so, affording them the opportunity to provide for their families in ways that most of us couldn't imagine.

But now that the information about the physical dangers of football is out there, it's impossible to pretend as if football can be enjoyed like it always has been.

This is not an easy reality for football fans to accept. And I'm certainly no different.

I grumbled when the NFL became more vigilant about policing illegal hits.

I thought the term "defenseless receiver" was a joke.

I cheered and hollered when crushing hits were endlessly replayed on television and online.

Undoubtedly, there are numerous fans who will continue to enjoy football like they always have. Despite the serious legal ramifications, the NFL won't be losing money or fans anytime soon.

But something has been shattered. It doesn't seem so harmless anymore to celebrate the violent and barbaric elements of the game, praise players for withstanding serious injuries, or criticize other players when they can't do the same.

You can love how football used to be. You just have to understand why it can never be that way again.

For many people, football is an escape. It's just a little bit harder to enjoy when you know that escape is booby-trapped.