Troy Aikman was right. Football has a crisis, and it is not limited to the NFL. It stretches down through college, high school, even Pop Warner.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King addressed it on Twitter on Thursday morning, the day after Junior Seau was found dead with what the San Diego County medical examiner confirmed was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest:
"I wonder how many parents woke up today, read about Seau and Saints bounties, and said: 'I'm not letting my kid near a football field.'"
That has been my stance since Dec. 23, 2008, the day I found out I was pregnant with my son.
I love football. Always have. For the past decade, I've made a living writing primarily about the NFL, chronicling the great games and iconic players, the epic successes and the crushing failures. So I'm sure this will come off as hypocritical to some, but so be it: There is no way I'm letting my beloved boy play the game at any level. Football is not an option for him. It is too violent, and the ramifications of head injuries suffered while playing at all levels are too great.
My little guy will have to find some other sport -- any other sport -- to play. Hoops. Baseball. Soccer. Tennis. Golf. Lacrosse. Whatever. But not football. Not while I am breathing.
There are many things to love about football. For kids, it builds confidence. It promotes teamwork. It is fun. It is a physical game but it is a cerebral one, too. The bonds guys make playing football last a lifetime.
The questions for those who play are how long is that lifetime and what does it look like at age 40 or 50 or 60?
For the men who play in the NFL, the questions become more serious. Can you find your keys or remember you mom's phone number when you are 38? Do you have searing headaches? Are you depressed? Can you walk?
Sure, there are plenty of players who say they leave the game unscathed, but there are plenty who suffer in silence, too proud to admit something is wrong.
Aikman understands and loves football as much as anyone. In February, during a forum in Los Angeles, he questioned the "long-term viability" of the NFL, given the concussion issue, and said that if he had a son, he wouldn't encourage him to play football. Kurt Warner told ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd on Thursday that he worries about his boys playing football and would rather they didn't.
"I understand how great the game of football was for me and what it did for my family," Warner said, "but when I'm sitting back and watching my kids play -- my boys play right now, they love it, their dream is to play in the NFL -- I worry about it. I worry about the long-term effects for me personally. I worry about what can happen after football, as we've seen with a number of guys. I worry about what can happen at a younger age. We hear about more concussions and all the different things that go on. So it's definitely a concern of mine, and with the way things are going right now and the way guys are getting bigger and stronger and faster, I would encourage my kids to probably stay away from it if I could."
That's one Hall of Famer and a future Hall of Famer not endorsing the sport. Why? Because they know the dangers.
Aikman also said that day in Los Angeles that he thought the league would one day lose its status as the most popular sport in America. It was blasphemous at the time; he told me in an email that his comments had "already garnered more than enough discussion." But between the Saints bounty scandal, the more than 1,500 former players suing the league and the fact that three former players -- Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Seau -- have committed suicide in the past 15 months, it doesn't look that way now, does it?
The NFL is at a crossroads. It has to fix the problem. The league needs to throw as much money as it takes at research and development. Buy in 100 percent to dealing with concussions and taking care of retired players. Find out what is going on, and fix it. If the league doesn't do it, Congress might.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety his mantra. He crushed the Saints for operating a bounty system, and the harsh penalties ensure that the practice will cease. But he must do more.
For a culture to change, there has to be a face, and there isn't a more relevant face for this culture change than Junior Seau. Even if you watched the NFL only casually over the past 20 years, you know who Junior Seau was. He transcended the sport.
Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler and a 10-time All-Pro selection. The Pro Football Hall of Fame named him to its 1990s All-Decade team. Seau won the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1994. He was beloved by his teammates, coaches and fans in three NFL markets. He was San Diego. He was popular and polite, funny, well spoken, charismatic, ebullient and as tenacious a defender as the league has ever seen.
On the field Seau was unpredictable and a hard hitter. Off it he was a jokester and a friend.
No one knows whether football played a role in Seau's death. Reasonable people can look at the man, the career, the way he played and pair that with what we know about the effects of repeated concussions and conclude that it is a possibility. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Seau family has decided to let researchers study Seau's brain to determine whether there is evidence of damage as the result of concussions, even though Seau was never listed on an NFL injury report as having a concussion. If he had brain damage, it could change the game forever.
The issue of player safety and concussions would have a very real, very fresh face. In death, Seau could make an even bigger difference than he did in life. He could cause a sea change in a sport that increasingly, desperately needs one, from youth football on up.