Is football too dangerous--and should we change the rules?

I am reasonably confident that all moral members of modern society feel disquiet, at least, at the thought of ancient Roman gladiatorial games in which the very goal of the contest was...death. But what about modern games in which one of the goals is disability? This, to me, seems a difference of degree rather than kind-and worthy of our scrutiny.

A new study commissioned by the National Football League suggests that former pro football players are 19 times more likely than the rest of us to report memory problems in early adulthood and middle age; and 5 times as likely as the rest of us to develop Alzheimer's as a result of head injuries. This would be bad enough if the head injuries were accidental, as they can be in other sports such as basketball and soccer. But let's be honest: bone-crushing impact is an actual objective in football, and a fundamental part of the spectacle. Fans expect to see heads getting pounded into the turf. They are paying for it. These are our modern gladiators.

Now, don't get me wrong-my academic pedigree notwithstanding, I am not an effete, stay-at-home, milquetoast kind of guy. I have perfectly good "rugged guy" bona fides. My ideas of a good time include racing a horse at high speed over obstacles in the woods; skiing a mogul-strewn double black diamond with comparable abandon; hiking 15 miles or biking 30. I even have years of martial arts under my (not quite black, alas) belt. And I have the wear and tear to show for it: 15 broken bones (or at least, that's how many I had when I stopped counting); torn this, that, and the other thing; far too many stitches to keep track of; and at least two concussions.

But in my case, this is simply a by-product of "boys will be boys" mayhem. No one was paying me to get hurt. No one was watching expectantly, hoping to see me get hurt. Some people even regretted it-myself included.

That's not the case for our gridiron gladiators. Getting their brains bashed is the price of glory.

So I'm just asking: is a 5-fold increase in the risk of a condition as dreaded as Alzheimer's dementia a reasonable price to pay for what is, at the end of the day, a diversion? Or, is it time to think about changing the rules of this dangerous game?

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[photo credit: Getty Images]