At least one observer said this week that the general public is missing a good football game if it keeps focusing on concussions, ACL injuries and rules changes.
In fact, Daniel J. Flynn, the author of the about-to-be-published book, "The War on Football: Saving America's Game," wrote in an op-ed in Thursday's Los Angeles Times that football never has been safer, no matter what the critics say.
The rough sport, which could boast just two seasons of single-digit contact deaths between 1931 and 1977, has since 1977 experienced just one season of double-digit collision deaths -- in 1986, the birth year of today's average NFL player.
The dramatic reduction in fatalities should have caused football's boo-birds to cheer, or at least chirp. Relative to its past and the present of other pastimes, football looks quite good. For instance, California suffered seven times as many collision deaths from skateboarding last year as the entire United States did from football.
Flynn said too much is being made about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, with many generalizations offered about the brain disease. In fact, Flynn cited a study published in the British Journal of Medicine that says there still are too many unknowns about CTE for some of the conclusions that have been made.
All the while, in measurable areas, football progresses. In the National Football League, concussions dropped from 270 in 2010 to 266 in 2011 to 170 in 2012. A study published last year by federal researchers of pension-vested NFL retirees who played between 1959 and 1988 showed that just 10% of the group had died, compared with the expected rate of 18%. In other words, Hall of Famer Art Donovan, that burly bard of football folk tales who passed away at 88 this month, wasn't much of an outlier, at least when it came to his life span. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that NFL retirees experience "significantly decreased" mortality relative to their peers in the U.S. population.
The same study, which the NFL Players Assn. petitioned the institute to conduct, also looked at suicide. Given the speculation linking CTE with the suicides of several high-profile players, the scientists' findings were stunning. The study found a suicide rate for the retired athletes significantly below the expected rate.
So the facts about football dangers improve even if the perception doesn't. In the end, longer lives and fewer deaths should offer a valuable lesson to football's crusading abolitionists, and to its rigid purists. The former should grasp that football no longer poses the risks it once did. The latter should concede that reform is the reason.
Flynn believes the greatest asset the NFL has is its ability to change.
Purists who protest change really don't understand the sport they love. While baseball and soccer have essentially stayed the same since the 19th century, football has morphed from a collegiate kicking sport to a grinding ground game to a spectacle of aerial acrobatics. Those changes didn't destroy the game, and surely the new rules allowing the NCAA to eject players for hits on defenseless receivers and allowing the NFL to penalize running backs who lower their heads into tacklers won't destroy it either.
Football is anything but backward. It evolves. The game's most zealous friends and foes might take a page out of football's playbook and evolve too.
-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor