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Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Football getting harder to watch

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

Tittle, Bednarik, Massaquoi
Violence has always been part of football. Y.A. Tittle recovers from a hit in 1964. Chuck Bednarik (60) flattened Frank Gifford in 1960. James Harrison delivers a blow to Mohamed Massaquoi in 2010.

The NFL is asking viewers to write in and tell it, "Why do YOU love football?"

This is my answer:

I used to.

I used to love football the way German shepherds love sirloin. I'd sit in the press box and insist the window stay open -- even on down-coat days -- just so I could hear the sound of two men colliding at full speed. It thrilled me. And I'd wonder: Who does that?

Now I hear that sound and wonder how soon it will be before they can't remember where they parked, their sons' middle names, or where their families went last summer on vacation.

I see too much sorrow and ugliness to love football like I used to.

I watch Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck take a brutal lick now and I think of former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who told a Washington radio show the other day he can't remember most of his daughter's soccer games. "That's a little bit scary to me," Favre said. "... That put a little fear in me." He's 44 years old.

I watch New England tight end Rob Gronkowski get up from wreck after wreck, and I think of former Colts tight end Ben Utecht, who said the other day he couldn't remember being at a friend's wedding until the friend showed him the photo album. See, you were a groomsmen. And you sang, remember? He's 32 years old.

I watch Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson fling himself into crashing whirlpools of men and I think of former Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, who said he sometimes finds himself driving on a highway and can't remember where he's going. "I'm just hoping and praying I can find a way to cut it off at the pass," Dorsett said recently. He's 59 years old.

I see too much sorrow and ugliness now to love football like I used to.

I read the filthy and racist transcript of voice mails between one Miami Dolphin and another and am told bullying is "part of the culture." Or lack thereof. I read about players like the late Chiefs LB Jovan Belcher, twisted inside his violent life, and yet not one NFL team has a full-time psychiatrist on staff.

I read the suicide obits of former Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, age 50, and former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, 43, and I can't help but notice Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson is 95, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos 90, and Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford 88. Good for them. They were lucky enough to get in on the luxury box side of the business, not the pine box.

Now, the guilt gnaws at me a little as I watch.

I covered former Broncos defensive end Karl Mecklenburg. Now he takes a photo of the front of his hotel in the morning so he can find his way back at night. I covered former Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper. Now he has constant ringing in his ears. I covered former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and used to giggle at the way he'd score a touchdown and then joyously butt heads with teammates at 10 miles an hour. Now he has two teammates who have committed suicide and admits he's thought of it himself.

Brett Favre
In return for fame and money, Brett Favre paid a considerable physical toll.

I realize the NFL handed over $765 million in a lawsuit settlement to cover the more than 4,500 players who say playing in their league damaged their brains, but that blood money doesn't assuage my small sense of shame -- it only thickens it. I was entertained by so many of these men -- made my own living off it -- and now I realize some of them paid for my entertainment with their lives.

One time, I was standing on a street corner in Mexico City when I saw a man breathe a huge swath of fire for tips from cars. He'd fill his mouth with lighter fluid, flick a Bic lighter in front of his mouth and exhale a river of flames that lit up the shiny car hoods. I stood there for 30 minutes, watching him. Tipped him myself. But when I told my host about it, he said, "Don't you know all those fire-breathers get throat cancer from that? All of them."

The difference now is, our fire breathers do it on our big screens.

I have heard about guys who wake up dizzy, with headaches every morning, and yet they still strap that helmet on and go out there.  

Who does that?

This is the game I've spent 36 years glamorizing. These are the men I've spent five decades lionizing. And it turns out I was part of the problem. Howard Cosell stopped covering boxing when his conscience wouldn't allow it, and yet I go on. I'm addicted.

In Caesar's day, they filled the 50,000-seat Roman Coliseum to watch gladiators compete. These gladiators trained at special schools. They knew the risk. The glory and the money was worth it to them. If the gladiators weren't dead at the end of the fight, the emperor looked to the crowd to help him decide: Had the losing fighter fought hard enough to please the people? If he hadn't, the emperor would give a thumbs down, and the victor would immediately stick his sword into the neck of his opponent.

We are all still in that Coliseum. We are still being entertained by men willfully destroying each other. It's just that now, the sword comes later.