Or at least they did for a while. Now, as medical technology advances and we are able to get an inside look into the actual brains of professional football players, that may be changing. The science may not have completely caught up to the sport yet, but we are all starting to understand the tole that repeated head shots, the kind that are more than prevalent in the game of football, can take on a man. They certainly can hinder neurological developments. They may cause severe and dangerous depression within the human mind. And, as former saints wide receiver Steve Gleason can tell you, severe head trauma may even be linked to ALS disease. So, even though all the facts are not yet known, this much is sure. Football players are taking enormous risks with their long-term health. And, with president Roosevelt long dead, one question remains. Who is there to protect them?
You may say no one can, and there is some logic in that response. We all know that football is, by nature, a violent and devastating game, which necessitates that the men playing put their long-term health on the line. That will likely never change. But what has changed is that the 230 pound defensive end who ran a 4.95 in 1970 is now a 285 pound chisseled monster who runs a 4.65. Jack Lambert weighed 220 pounds soaking wet. DeMarcus Ware weighs 265, runs probably (at least) 3 tenths a second faster in the 40 and benches more than 500 pounds. The players have changed. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than they've ever been before, and it's not even close.
So why shouldn't the rules of the game itself, both written and unwritten, change with them? Just because the Oakland Raiders had a bounty on Lynn Swan in the 1970's doesn't make it OK for the New Orleans Saints to have one on Brett Favre in the 2010's. Just because Jack Tatum slammed his head into receivers heads like a battering ram 30 years ago, doesn't make it OK for James Harrison to do it today. Because, as viscous as Tatum and the Raiders were, they weren't capable of inflicting the damage that their predecessors are. Say what you will, but those are just the stone cold facts.
And just because many players will shrug their shoulders and say "that's the risk we take" when asked about head injuries, that doesn't mean that we should accept that reality for them. These are men who are (often) getting paid millions of dollars to be modern day gladiators. Someone has to protect them from themselves, and realize that their ability to be in a brightly lit room for the rest of their lives without a shooting pain in their cranium is more important than getting a $1,500 bonus for trying to knock the opposing quarterback out cold. Once they are done playing football, they cannot live in the dark forever.
So who cares if the ball was always kicked from the 30 yard line before. If kicking it from the 35 will make the game safer, than I am all for it. And you should be too. After all when president Roosevelt and Alonzo Stagg got their hands on the game it was little more than a rugby like scrum. Then they inserted something called the forward pass to open the game up. The result? Football as we know it today. And a sudden lack of college kids dieing on the field. Change was needed, and these men had the guts to step up and make it happen; to save the game.
So the question remains, does anyone out there have the same intestinal fortitude today? Or are we still just fans who cheer when James Harrison turns Colt McCoy's brain into scrambled eggs or shrug our shoulders while Gregg Williams pays Jonathan Vilma to put a forearm into the side of Matt Ryan's helmet. Football will always be violent, brutal and dangerous. But it doesn't have to be deadly.
So next time you bitch and moan about the "softening" of modern football, think about guys like Steve Gleason, whose body is being ravaged by an incurable disease that likely was triggered by his time on the gridiron. Next time you shrug your shoulders at a bounty system think about Sean Payton and Gregg Williams were coaching the Saints, watching as their former player was losing control of the body he had cultivated and maintained to become a professional athlete. Think about the fact that they stood by him, while refusing to stand against the same thing possibly happening to someone else.
In fact, directly or not, they encouraged it. I'm not sure what Williams or Payton knew and what they didn't know. But I do know one thing. President Roosevelt would be ashamed.
After all he's the one who taught us that in football, as well as in any other aspect of life, change is inevitable. We can adapt and move forward, or we can refuse to budge until the game becomes a shell of its former shelf. Until young men are again lying dead on the field.
Because in the end, this sentiment still rings true. Just because that's the way it has always been done, doesn't mean that's the way that it always needs to be.
Once again change is needed. Once again the game of football needs to be saved from itself. And that my friends is a stone cold fact.