Football is our national pastime. It used to be baseball—no longer.

It’s hard to believe but there was a time when there was hardly a town or village that didn’t support some sort of baseball team, be it minor league, semi-professional or amateur. Baseball players were national heroes. The World Series was a big deal. For six months of the year the sport dominated the water-cooler-lunch-room chitchat.

No more. Now it’s football, football, football. And it’s not just six months a year, what with the draft and training camps and exhibition games it’s more like eleven.

It’s all poor baseball can do to seize the nation’s attention for a couple of weeks when it plays its World Series and even then its hold is tenuous. (Quick, who was the losing team in the World Series this year? I thought so.)

Yes, football is king; of that there can be no doubt. There’s only one more thing that needs to be said about it:

It’s a truly awful game.

It’s a brutal game played by bullies for the enjoyment of people who would be at home watching gladiators fight to the death in the Coliseum of ancient Rome.

And, like ancient Rome, football uses its combatants like Kleenex, then discards them with hardly a thought.

Just before Christmas the National Football League announced its ongoing study of the effects of head injuries on players was so compromised by conflicts of interest that it was shutting it down.

After stonewalling critics and players for years on the subject of concussions and their aftereffects, the league finally acknowledged that yes, perhaps concussions were a bad thing.

“It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems,” a league spokesperson said.

And just now they figure out that getting hit in the head repeatedly might be bad for you?

Dozens of cases of dementia, early Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline among older players have surfaced in recent years. Autopsies performed on the brains of deceased players have revealed signs of unusual damage, traceable to brain trauma.

Nor is a head injury the only fruit of a career in football. Sports Illustrated recently ran a piece about Dave Pear, a former Pro Bowl defensive lineman and Super Bowl champion who ended a five-year playing career in 1980.

“I wish I never played football,” he told the magazine.

Because of injuries he sustained playing football, injuries he was encouraged—indeed, required—to play through as a player, he walks with a cane, when he walks at all. He suffers from vertigo and memory loss and is in virtually constant pain. He has undergone eight surgeries in the past 18 years, including disc removal and rod fusion in his back, arthroplasty in a hip, as well as a neck operation.

The Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman, who has interviewed more than 150 former players on the subject, says that roughly 60 percent of them live with extraordinary physical pain as part of their daily lives.

Barry Sanders was a favorite player of mine. I thought that the Detroit Lions player the most spectacular running back I’d ever seen. I still think that.

He retired suddenly about 10 years ago and no one could figure out why. He seemed in good health. He was at the top of his game. But he quit.

Recently he revealed that in the summer before his retirement he’d gone to Texas for a golf tournament and seen Earl Campbell there.

If Sanders was the flashiest runner, Campbell was the one who best combined power and speed. He was a monster, a punishing running back who ran over people, then away from them.

And when Sanders saw him that summer, he couldn’t walk. He needed a golf cart to get around. Earl Campbell, the indestructible. That’s when Sanders decided to quit.

If football players were animals, then football would be, like dog-fighting, outlawed. The players are our pit-bull; we are their Michael Vicks.

Some national pastime.

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Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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