NEW ORLEANS -- While San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh went comedic when asked about President Obama's recent assertion that he'd have to "think long and hard" before letting his son play football, if he had a son. The concerns about football's violence, and the aftereffects of that violence, have been more and more wide-ranging in the last few years. More than 4,000 former players have sued the NFL for alleged negligence when they played the game, and the recent findings that Junior Seau Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative condition that can lead to memory loss, dementia and depression, further confirmed the thoughts of those who believe that the hits Seau took may have led him to take his own life.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is saying all the right things about making the game safer, but many current players believe that he's taken things too far. According to a recent player poll in USA Today, Goodell has a 39-percent approval rating among the men who play the game, and the league's response to the inevitable violence is a major factor.
It's a complicated issue, and when Harbaugh was asked about it on Monday, he said that of Obama's hypothetical son didn't play football, that would clear the landscape for his own progeny.
"Well, I have a 4-month-old, soon-to-be-5-month-old son, Jack Harbaugh. If President Obama feels that way, then there will be a little less competition for Jack Harbaugh for when he gets old enough. That's the first thing that jumps in my mind if other parents are thinking that way.
"It's still early. Jack, like I said, is only five months old. But he's a really big kid. He's got an enormous head ... As soon as he grows into that head, he's going to be something. It's early, but expectations are high for young Jack."
Others who were asked about Obama's position took the issue a bit more seriously. John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens (as you may have heard, two brothers are coaching against each other in this Super Bowl), seemed to take it a bit more personally.
John Harbaugh was one of many talking about President Obama's comments on Monday. (Getty Images)“I don’t agree with that, but I like Jim’s comment," Harbaugh said at the Ravens' opening press conference. "Jim said that little Jack is going to be playing football, right? That’s one less kid to compete with. I like that comment. 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.”
Ravens players seemed to understand what Obama was saying -- the internal conflict for those who love to play the game but want to live meaningful lives when they're done was pretty clear.
“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," Ravens end Terrell Suggs said. "I think if [even] you play the game right and you play it appropriately, that injuries are a part of the game.”
And would Suggs let his son play the game? “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.”
Safety Ed Reed, who was suspended for a game this season after the league took offense to a hit he put on Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders (the suspension was later overturned), is taking every possible precaution to insure that he has a valuable life when his NFL days are done.
"The truth is that football does take its toll," Reed said. "It does take its toll on our life and our body. So that’s why physically, I was assessing myself through the years, and even now, to see how I feel. I’ve been doing some great things with my doctor, to kind of combat against the [aging] that we have. We age faster than everybody for what we do. My whole protocol is surrounded around making sure that you’re taking care of the body. It’s one thing for what God has planned for you, as far as you to see him, seeing your maker. But it’s one thing as far as what you’re doing physically to take care of yourself, as far as your health, as far as your eating, what you’re putting into your body, how you’re working out.
"I used to work out with Sergeant Slaughter over there, Ray Lewis," Reed continued, while pointing at his longtime teammate in the media room. "And I used to be like, ‘Lew’ -- we’re working too hard. We’re doing too much, and at some point, you’re doing too much, I think. The biggest thing is having someone and knowing your body as best you could to get that full potential out of yourself, by maximizing that. That’s why I’ve performed the way I’ve performed this year and that’s why I’ve played all the games, and why you don’t see me on the ground wincing as much - because I’ve done enough to help myself to bounce back for this job, because I’m one of the guys who was born for this, who really puts everything into football and puts a lot of things on the back burner.”
Lewis didn't comment on Obama's thoughts, but San Francisco end Aldon Smith was happy to discuss the subject during his team's Monday media session.
“I think the game has been like it always has. It’s a physical game. Everybody plays hard. Guys get hit sometimes and 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. We came out. We’re playing football.”
But will there be as many young people playing the game into the future? Recent studies indicate that more and more parents are having their kids play other sports, and even a future Hall-of-Famer like ex-quarterback Kurt Warner has to think long and hard when presented with the question Obama answered.
"They both have the dream, like dad, to play in the NFL," Warner said of his two sons last May. "That's their goal. And when you hear things like the bounties, when you know certain things having played the game, and then obviously when you understand the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and then you couple that with situations like Junior Seau — was that a ramification of all the years playing? And things that go with that. It scares me as a dad. I just wonder — I wonder what the league's going to be like. I love that the commissioner is doing a lot of things to try to clean up the game from that standpoint and improve player safety, which helps, in my mind, a lot. But it's a scary thing for me."
It's a scary thing for a lot of people. And no matter what the NFL tries to do to change it, football is a violent game. That's the reality that seems to transcend any discussion.
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