Future shock: The death of football

Football has always been a risky game. Maybe this should be in its future. ESPN.com Illustration

Once upon a time in America, smoking was commonplace. Glamorous, even. It had cachet. People puffed at the office, got alive with pleasure on airplanes, turned sporting events into movable airborne toxic events. Cigarettes were even peddled as healthy; and if Big Tobacco's promises of steadier nerves and improved digestion didn't exactly square with the reality of inhaling incinerated bits of leaf nicotine laced with pesticides -- well, lighting up sure as heck felt good, and that painful lesion in the back of your throat was nothing a spiffier, more sophisticated filter couldn't fix.

In short, smoking was a lot like football.

Maybe you've heard the news: Concussions are bad. Very bad, actually, assuming you need a working brain. Moreover, helmet-to-helmet football hits are downright scary. Especially when shown over and over on television.

In response, the NFL is getting tough, cracking down, fining the likes of Dunta Robinson roughly one-sixth ($50,000) of his weekly base salary ($294,000). This wanton cerebral trauma will not stand!

Problem solved. Crisis averted. Brains saved. Back to juggling fantasy lineups. Everything is once again hunky-dory on Planet Football, with two tiny, nagging exceptions:

1. The helmet hit crackdown doesn't solve the brain damage problem, any more than cigarette filters solve lung cancer;

And 2. Sooner or later, said brain damage problem is going to kill the sport as we know it.

To put things another way: Football is whistling past its future graveyard.

First, the whistling. The crackdown is nice, as is the public debate. Well-intentioned, for sure. Certainly can't hurt. But it won't do much to help, either, because when it comes to protecting gray matter, limiting hat-first missile hits is largely a red herring.

Let me explain.

Concussions occur when the head hits something. A hard plastic helmet. Or a knee. Or the ground. They also occur when the head moves quickly and violently even without suffering a direct impact, like during a blind-side hit.

In other words:

• Helmet hit? Possible concussion.

• Non-helmet hit? Possible concussion.

Helmets aren't the thing. Hitting is the thing.

Then there's chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have suffered brain trauma, including a number of deceased football players. Symptoms include mood swings, erratic behavior and memory lapses, followed by dementia. CTE was found in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long, who slid into depression before killing himself by drinking antifreeze. The disease was found in the brain of Owen Thomas, the 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania football captain who hanged himself in April. It's a nasty, mind-mushing, irreversible disorder -- and experts believe it's caused not just by concussions, but also subconcussive brain trauma.

In football terms, little hits.

The same little hits that are part and parcel of the sport.

The same little hits that aren't regulated -- can't be regulated, really -- by parsing and tweaking the rules of the game.

On to the graveyard. So long as the little hits lead to brain damage, they're going to bury football. Not overnight, but eventually. Maybe you don't believe me. Probably you don't believe me.

But think it through.

Football is brutal. It exacts a terrible physical toll, savaging current and former players alike, from Philadelphia 's DeSean Jackson to Hall of Famer John Mackey, a runaway fire truck of a tight end who now suffers from dementia and resides in an assisted-living facility. And fans know this. Players, too. Both groups have made their peace with the mayhem; for many, the mayhem is the draw.

If risk of brain damage was truly objectionable, spectators wouldn't pay. Athletes wouldn't play. But they do. They don't take up tennis, shift their fantasy leagues to indoor soccer and turn away in horror and disgust when New England's Brandon Meriweather nearly decapitates Baltimore's Todd Heap.

So losing the hearts and minds of people who already love and accept football's essential ugliness isn't the sport's long-term problem.

It's losing the hearts and minds of everyone else.

Ask yourself this: What happens when communities decide there's something better to do on Friday nights than watching their brothers, boyfriends, sons and grandsons turn their brains into ticking little time bombs?

What happens when mothers trade worrying about broken arms and blown knee ligaments for fretting over depression and suicide, and CTE gets a full eight minutes on "The View?"

What happens when a smart, ambitious trial lawyer sifts through the sport's human wreckage -- not to mention the NFL's previous reluctance to seriously address the problem -- and decides to pursue an attention-grabbing class action suit?

What happens when public and private colleges and universities decide that putting student safety at risk isn't worth the branding and fundraising benefits of having a football program, particularly in a world that includes trial lawyers?

What happens when general health-care costs keep rising, incomes keep stagnating and the sport itself becomes a public health issue that concerns everyone, in the manner of drunk driving and obesity?

Here's what could happen: Slowly but surely, people tune out. They decide that entertainment culminating in brain damage -- entertainment that turns performers into candidates for early bedpan service -- is neither glamorous nor, well, entertaining. Over time, the game loses its cultural cachet. Inside the sports world, it becomes boxing -- a cultish pastime held in low repute in which people with options in life watch people without options in life hurt each other for money. The Super Bowl was once the most popular event in America? Yeah, right. Was that before or after we adopted the yuan? And outside the athletic bubble, football becomes more marginalized still.

Take the debate back to smoking.

Smoking still has devotees. (Read: nicotine addicts). Tobacco remains a cash crop for a profitable, semi-respectable industry. But cigarettes will never again be viewed as harmless; never again be marketed as a healthy, wholesome foodstuff. The sheen is gone. Smoking is now a bad habit you try to quit, not start; a cancer-causer, a very real killer, a behavior banned from public spaces, requiring a dirty, smelly product that sports a big ugly surgeon general's warning right on the pack. No amount of well-intentioned discussion and regulation can turn tobacco cigarettes into their bubble gum doubles. They will never be safe.

As for football?

In 1905, a University of Chicago professor called football a "boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport." And that was before we knew anything about CTE. A hundred years from now, somebody somewhere will survey the damage -- the broken minds and lives, the public and private tragedies, the countless little hits delivered and endured -- and likely say the same thing. Or worse.

Because the game's real crisis isn't helmets hitting helmets. It's football being football. The sport can't become bubble gum.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.