Safety of football players looms large

The question seems to make its way through the media airwaves every few weeks.

It’s short and to the point, often posed to those in the public eye: Would you let your child play football?

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you — if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play,” President Barack Obama recently told The New Republic. “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”

Obama took his comments a step further, specifically referencing college athletes who don’t have a future in the NFL but suffer from concussions. What’s their future?

It’s a touchy issue on both the collegiate and professional levels. In response to Obama’s statement, Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard issued a dire warning about the sport he plays.

“The only thing I’m waiting for, and, Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen, is a guy dying on the field,” Pollard told CBS Sports. “We’ve had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.”

The way Pollard describes football, you’d think participants in the sport are modern-day gladiators. Heck, USC certainly hasn’t distanced itself from that comparison, seeing as the Trojans play at a stadium called the Coliseum to a crowd of more than 90,000.

In actuality, the increasing doubts about the safety of America’s favorite pastime (sorry, baseball) largely stem from the potential brain damage it causes. The USC community knows this all too well following the tragic suicide of former Trojan and San Diego Charger Junior Seau. Seau’s family recently sued the NFL, claiming his chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which was discovered in an autopsy, was a direct result of the violent hits he delivered. It’s a horrific situation without a clear resolution.

At this point, the fact that a sustained football career leads to brain damage isn’t breaking news. The last few years have raised awareness on the issue and brought it to the forefront of discussions about the sport. But Obama’s point of emphasis — referring to the college athletes without an NFL future — is one worth re-examining.

For every Marqise Lee who will someday make a career out of his football abilities, there are thousands of unsung backups absorbing the same hits, taking the same risks. And in a few years, those are the players who will emerge without much to show for their years of dedication to the game they love to play. There won’t be multimillion dollar contracts waiting post-graduation — most will be entering the workforce like everyone else. If polled, I’m sure the vast majority of former college athletes would say they have no regrets about choosing to commit so much time to such a physical sport. Maybe that’s true. But if they were asked the same question in 20, 30, 40 years, would that answer change?

Earlier this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took questions on Reddit, the majority of which revolved around player safety. He did his best to play the PR game of preaching player safety without addressing many specific changes, other than eliminating low blocks on defenders. He’s in a tricky spot: The NFL is flourishing. College football is flourishing. USC football is, and will remain, the most popular sport on campus (and it’s not even remotely close). What are the higher-ups in collegiate and professional sports supposed to do?

For the time being, almost everyone with some sort of vested interest in football is guilty of talking the talk without walking the walk. The USC community rallied around the life of Seau for the season-opener on Sep. 2 against the University of Hawai’i. We all wore “Trojan Pride 55” bracelets and commemorated his life with a moment of silence. It was a touching scene that the Seau family no doubt appreciated.

Then the game started, and we cheered on the Trojans as they delivered crushing blows to their opponents en route to a 49-10 victory. And we kicked the can down the road, waiting for science to catch up to a sport that may very well be taking years off the lives of its participants.

I’m not pretending to know what the best path forward is. I’ve watched football for as long as I can remember. I don’t want it to go anywhere. But when the president of the United States expresses concerns about its long-term health effects, we ought to listen. And when a current player takes those concerns a step further — citing death as a possible outcome — it’s a very scary omen indeed.


“The Fifth Down” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit or email Alex at


3 replies
  1. actuary
    actuary says:

    It’s really really difficult to convince college age kids (yes, they are kids) that decisions made today will haunt them years from now. They feel invulnerable, and they have cogent arguments how playing on a football team teaches the importance of teamwork (of course) and the value of hard work/practice, lessons with great significance throughout life. As Alex Shultz points out, it’s sad that there will be so many injuries before science catches up to protect our most valuable resource, our children. What’s even more heartbreaking is the realization that these players have already endured potential bodily harm from playing football in high school. It would help somewhat if coaches (and the medics) put the players health first and take a conservative action to not let them continue in the game after a particularly hard hit.

  2. John Darrouzet
    John Darrouzet says:

    This is the direction of the new sports journalist. Well-written, fact-based, question-raising, insight-seeking. Rather than simply adding praises to the games and players we love to watch, here is a columnist with a higher perspective and a higher calling. Hope Mr. Shultz will keep it up. And as “Deep Throat” is reported to have said to earlier top journalists in their day, “Follow the money” and see where this all leads. Perhaps Mr. Shultz can take up where James Michener left off when he wrote “Sports in America.”

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