When Colts quarterback Andrew Luck walked off the field for a final time on Aug. 24 — multiple injuries having convinced him that retirement from professional football at age 29 was the only sensible option — Colts fans booed. It was a stunning display given the quarterback’s past heroics on behalf of Indianapolis. This was the 2018 NFL Comeback Player of the Year who had previously overcome damage to his throwing shoulder as well as a concussion, leg injuries, a lacerated kidney and on and on. But the fans at Lucas Oil Stadium didn’t see a man facing a lifetime of pain after 86 NFL games, they saw only a competitive disadvantage in losing a top-rated signal-caller so late in preparations for the season. And so they booed.

Such indifference shocked even veteran NFL players. Well, perhaps only a little. The mythology of the gritty football player who shakes off blown knees, broken bones, chronic pain and hits to the head so damaging they cause temporary unconsciousness — and perhaps a lifetime of impaired cognitive function — through sheer courage and willpower is as much a part of football as touchdowns and cheerleaders. Never mind that it’s pure bunk. Football players are all too human, and if there’s one thing medical science has discovered in recent years, it’s that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain, is highly prevalent among former NFL players and incurable. That’s a scary circumstance given that CTE has been linked to severe depression, suicide, Parkinson’s disease and progressive dementia.

One suspects that reality won’t receive top billing as the National Football League kicks off its 100th season this week. But it’s hard to believe it won’t be in the back of the minds of fans. Attendance at NFL games was down last year, but television viewing was up. More telling is that America’s moms and dads aren’t too wild about their sons taking up football. Youth football participation rates are down nationwide and have been for years. A survey conducted last spring by the University of Washington School of Medicine found 61% of parents support a ban on youth tackle football. In Maryland, high school football participation rates are falling, mirroring the five-year national trend, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Last year, Baltimore’s Friends School dropped the sport entirely because so few students tried out. Howard County’s Centennial High did the same thing one year earlier.

As fans gather around their television sets, the question remains: Are they cheering for the American team sport they grew up with or a gladiatorial competition where serious injury is a given? Do they view NFL players as fellow humans or something else — perhaps doomed participants in a Faustian bargain where for millions of dollars they have agreed to put a functioning brain on the auction block? Will Baltimore Ravens fans watch their own team’s opening game against the Miami Dolphins with as jaundiced an eye as Colts fans? Presumably they won’t cheer for injury to anyone, friend or foe, but what if their young star quarterback Lamar Jackson is wiped out by a defensive lineman so badly that he opts for retirement? Will fans see that as misfortune or cowardice? Looking down on Colts fans is easy (given the franchise’s Baltimore roots), declining to boo the sudden retirement of their own quarterback might be something else.

To its credit, the NFL has been upgrading equipment and making minor rule changes to help prevent serious injury, but it’s not clear whether it’s been nearly enough. Some of the league’s biggest stars invariably land on the disabled list. Despite seeing limited action during this year’s preseason, the Texans have already lost their starting running back and the Patriots, their starting center for the year. The day football is once again seen as a wholesome activity is the day that youth participation rates are back on the rise. Until then, the NFL is perhaps best described as a guilty pleasure. It’s all very well to be thrilled by the heroics and athletic skills displayed each week on the gridiron, but do such competitions come at far too high a price?

Editorial by The Baltimore Sun

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