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May 5, 2012

Football may change, but it won't go away

The bright-eyed graduates walked across the stage at the University of Alabama this weekend. The summer humidity has started to kick in.

The beach beckons, the results of the A-Day Game and the NFL Draft are in and talk has turned to the end of football. That's not the temporary hiatus until September appear closer on the horizon. That's The End Of Football.

Two disparate and yet connected events of the past week revived the doomsday talk: the player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints "bounty" controversy and the sad death of future NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau, a death that may have been a suicide and the product of depression that may have been caused by football-related head injuries.

Those two news stories didn't start the conversation - it has been percolating with various degrees of steam beneath it for years.

After the Super Bowl in February, two economists, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, wrote an article called "What Would The End Of Football Look Like?" and if you can get through the pre-apocalyptic stridency and the snarky academic glee of reaching a sports-audience instead of the usual dozen or so readers of dry academic journals, their argument makes enough sense to be worth reading.

The twin threats that they perceive, in a nutshell, are massive crippling liability judgments for concussion-related illnesses and industries and a gradual refusal of more and more parents (and school systems) to allow children to play football in the first place.

Their argument tends to ignore (or belittle) the cultural relevance of football - they are economists, after all - and doesn't address what must be similar crises in boxing (obviously) and ice hockey, to name two other sports with an element of the knockout. And the fact is, football without collisions is not football. If it is merely a game of positioning your players more strategically than the other team, it is simply human-scale chess.

The issues related to concussions, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are important. The health and safety of participants does come first. Alabama had players sidelined on a precautionary basis at various points of the season (including the kicker, Cade Foster). But the idea it's time to throw up our collective hands and say football will be over in 10 or 20 years seems defeatist.

First, football isn't simply going away. Tuscaloosa, of course, may be the town with the most vital football spirit in America, and no matter what happens, the sport will survive here as tenaciously as running with the bulls has survived in Pamplona.

But a decade or two is a long time in terms of technological innovation, as well. Better science, better diagnosis, better helmets and other protection, and yes, better rules, are also on the horizon. Football may change.

Kickoffs may be headed onto the scrap heap of gridiron history in the same way as the flying wedge. But at the moment - and for the foreseeable future - the end of football simply means the four long months between now and the coming of September.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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