Last thing foot­ball needs is to play up vi­o­lence

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Chris Kor­man For The Win | USA TO­DAY Net­work

The Al­liance of Amer­i­can Foot­ball made its de­but Satur­day to a round of po­lite ap­plause. The XFL is sched­uled for a 2020 re­turn, and other al­ter­na­tive leagues are in the works.

It feels like we go through this ex­er­cise once or twice a decade, when some en­tre­pre­neur gets the bright idea (for a sec­ond time, in some cases) to try to pro­vide foot­ball filler for the rest of the year. The NFL is surg­ing to­ward be­ing a $20 bil­lion a year busi­ness; surely there’s room for al­ter­nate leagues look­ing just to gen­er­ate a mere sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion.

In most sports, more op­por­tu­nity for ath­letes to play and get paid is a good thing. One of the great un­der-cov­ered sto­ries in basketball is how many U.S. col­lege play­ers go on to wildly in­ter­est­ing and well-com­pen­sated ca­reers in every cor­ner of the world.

But foot­ball is different. The bare­bones vi­o­lence of the sport is enough to leave play­ers dam­aged for­ever. Any at­tempts at ex­pand­ing the sport should be un­der­taken with care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of how the game has changed and needs to con­tinue to change.

More to the point, those at­tempts must by­pass the eas­i­est path to­ward draw­ing hard-core, pos­si­bly dis­grun­tled foot­ball fans: a re­turn to the wan­ton vi­o­lence that many of us grew up watch­ing in the NFL.

But let’s be hon­est: Al­low­ing wide re­ceivers to get blown up over the mid­dle and quar­ter­backs to be lev­eled with shots to the chin is al­most cer­tainly a vi­able short-term busi­ness ap­proach.

Fans who tuned into AAF’s open­ing week­end loved this play, where Mike Ber­covici’s hel­met is re­moved by Shaan Wash­ing­ton launch­ing him­self at the quar­ter­back’s head.

And that is not a sur­prise, at all: The NFL mar­keted those hits for decades as it built the league. This is what we think of when we think of foot­ball, and that’s on pur­pose. The in­cred­i­ble catches, sure, and in­sane cut­backs and all the in­tri­cate strat­egy that goes into the game — those are all part of the game, too. But the 20-sec­ond com­mer­cial meant to grab your at­ten­tion when you were 10 years old was punc­tu­ated by bodies col­lid­ing. That was the sell­ing point.

We should not be go­ing back there. It might be a cheap way to make the league stick, but it’s not sus­tain­able for the long-term fu­ture of the game.

There’s still so much we don’t know about chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE), and fur­ther re­search, which was stymied by in­ter­ests try­ing to pro­tect foot­ball, is go­ing to take years upon years, but we know it af­fects enough play­ers that all rea­son­able pre­cau­tions should be taken.

Like throw­ing a flag when a de­fen­sive player uses the crown of his hel­met to try to give an op­pos­ing quar­ter­back a con­cus­sion.

The NFL de­serves credit for mor­ph­ing the game so that many of the most egre­gious hits have been elim­i­nated. The league still strug­gles to deal with its role in dam­ag­ing play­ers and hid­ing the true and last­ing ex­tent of that dam­age — as shown by ESPN’s ex­plo­sive re­port­ing on Bob Costas be­ing forced from NFL broad­casts be­cause he wanted to dis­cuss con­cus­sions — but the fact is, the NFL has risked alien­at­ing cus­tomers by mak­ing the game, in the de­ri­sive word of so many (in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent), soft.

Pro Foot­ball Talk wrote this fuzzy story last week about NFL Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mit­tee mem­bers be­liev­ing that their rule changes have trick­led down to the high school level and helped make the sport safer than it has ever been. I se­ri­ously doubt there’s di­rect ev­i­dence to prove that claim but think there’s cer­tainly va­lid­ity in the premise: Kids are likely to play foot­ball the way they see it be­ing played by pro­fes­sion­als.

My 5-year-old has started look­ing at the TV when foot­ball is on, and I’m re­lieved that he’s see­ing a different game than I saw when I first watched the NFL.

If a new league takes the easy way out by of­fer­ing a more vi­o­lent al­ter­na­tive, it is only has­ten­ing its ul­ti­mate demise, and en­dan­ger­ing the fu­ture of the game, no mat­ter which league is play­ing it.

PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP

Re­ceiver Chris Thomp­son played Satur­day in Or­lando’s Al­liance of Amer­i­can Foot­ball game.

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