Safety conversation must continue

NEW ORLEANS -- It was an amusing answer to a serious question, and it played well with a crowd that has grown accustomed to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh purposely leaving his personality at the door of his news conferences.

President Barack Obama recently told The New Republic that, if he had a son, he would have to really think about letting him put pads on. Told of that, Harbaugh used the chip he had: his nearly 5-month-old son, Jack, named for the coach's father.

"If President Obama feels that way, then there will be a little bit less competition for Jack Harbaugh when he gets old," Harbaugh said. "It's still early. Like I said, Jack is only 5 months old. He is a really big kid. He has an enormous head. We don't have a 40 [time] on him yet, but his wingspan is plus-one and as soon as he grows into that head he is going to be something. It's early, but expectations are high for young Jack."

It was all laughs and giggles Monday of Super Bowl week, but there is a serious side to this, too. There are lots of people who feel like the president, including me. There are plenty of parents who have watched the never-ending stream of lawsuits, the high-profile suicides and the ever-growing evidence of what repetitive head traumas do to a brain and have said, "Not my kid."

But there has to be a happy medium between me and the president and Bernard Pollard, the Baltimore Ravens' hard-hitting safety who recently told CBSSports.com he doesn't think the National Football League is going to be in existence in 30 years. Pollard's contention is that rules changes that are meant to make the game safer will eventually so water down the product that fans won't want to pay to watch the game anymore.

"Guys are getting fined, and they're talking about, 'Let's take away the strike zone,' and 'Take the pads off' or 'Take the helmets off,'" Pollard said. "It's going to be a thing where fans aren't going to want to watch it anymore."

Football is not going away, nor is the NFL. The game is as popular as ever.

Amid the mountain of information the league has put out this week is a 16-page report entitled "NFL: America's Choice." It looked at a variety of measurements -- TV ratings, surveys, attendance, blackouts, female fans and Super Bowl popularity -- that showed fans are flocking to the NFL like never before. More than 200 million people watched the 2012 season, which represented 80 percent of all television homes and 69 percent of potential viewers in the United States. Thirty-one of the 32 most-watched shows in the Fall 2012 TV season were NFL games (the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was the other).

In 2002, according to the NFL and The Nielsen Company, the NFL on broadcast television had a 52 percent advantage over what was shown on broadcast TV in prime time. In 2012, that advantage grew to 154 percent.

The ratings thus far for the playoffs are nearly double what the National Basketball Association drew for the Finals and dwarf what Major League Baseball drew for the World Series or what NASCAR drew for the Daytona 500.

According to The Harris Poll, professional football is more popular than baseball, auto racing and men's professional basketball combined. Attendance is up. Blackouts are down. And more women are watching.

So the money-generating behemoth that is the NFL isn't going anywhere. There will continue to be people who feel like Obama and wouldn't want their son involved in a sport that leaves significant scars, but there also will be people who feel like every player and coach I spoke with for San Francisco and Baltimore. This is the life they chose, and given a second chance, they would choose it again.

If the league wants to make that choice easier and more palatable by protecting players from themselves as well as each other, we should applaud that, even if players aren't thrilled with the penalties and fines. It is making strides with how it deals with concussions, but much, much more needs to be done.

"The game is what we signed up for," 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith said. "It's football. We didn't sign up for tennis. We didn't sign up for swimming and thought we were going to go out there and get tackled. We signed up for football. We know it's a physical sport. I think as long we continue to play and be safe, we'll be all right."

Baltimore center Matt Birk has six kids, including three sons. He has played 15 seasons in the NFL and knows the dangers of the game as well as anyone. He said he would let his boys play, if and when they ask.

"I think anybody who's a parent can relate to [Obama's comments]," Birk said. "Certainly it is a dangerous game, and we're finding out more and more every day the long-term effects this game can have. I think it's a joint effort with the commissioner, with coaches, with players, everybody. Everybody wants to make this game as safe as it can be.

"I think we're making strides in that, ultimately because football's a great game. Obviously, it's a great game for NFL players -- it's how we make our living -- but most kids who play football aren't going to make it to the NFL. But it's such a great game because it teaches you so much about life and lessons. There's much to be gained by participating in football. It would serve us all well to continue to have this conversation, continue to talk about it, and I think we've done that the last few years, and just do whatever we can to make it safer, whether it be through rules changes or research or whatever it is."

It is a continuing conversation and a necessary one for the little Jack Harbaughs of the world.