Keeping Score

What if There Were No Super Bowl?

A Baltimore Ravens player is predicting the NFL's extinction. How this Super Bowl is grappling with player safety

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Patrick Semansky / AP

Ben Nix, from NFL security, carries the Vince Lombardi Trophy in preparation for a news conference between San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game on Feb. 1, 2013, in New Orleans.

For probably the first time in NFL history, players are talking about the Super Bowl’s possible extinction, just a few days before the big game in New Orleans between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

You can thank two people for that: Ravens safety Bernard Pollard and President Barack Obama. Late last week, Pollard told CBS Sports that he did not think the NFL would still exist in 30 years. “I think with the direction things are going — where [NFL rulemakers] want to lighten up, and they’re throwing flags and everything else — there’s going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it,” Pollard said. He also said with players getting bigger and stronger every year, it’s nearly impossible to make the game safe. “The only thing I’m waiting for … and, Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen … is a guy dying on the field,” Pollard said. Such a catastrophe could turn more fans away from the game.

Then, in an interview with the New Republic, Obama wrestled with the safety issues that threaten the future of football. If he had a son, Obama said, he’d “have to think long and hard” about letting him play football. “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” Obama told the magazine. “In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Where is football going? That crucial, complex question — which has no clear answer — is at the forefront of Super Bowl XLVII, which kicks off on Feb. 3. During Tuesday’s media day, Pollard — one of the NFL’s fiercest hitters, whose helmet-to-helmet strike on New England running back Stevan Ridley in the AFC title game both caused a crucial fumble and knocked Ridley out of the game — stood by his prediction that meddling with the core nature of football will lead to the NFL’s doom. “We can’t as fans and as players allow a group of men to change this game,” says Pollard. “That’s what’s going on right now.”

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Pollard insists rule tweaks aren’t going to reduce collisions and injury risk. “It’s a car crash on every play,” Pollard says. Technology is not the answer. “It doesn’t matter if you put a bigger helmet on me,” Pollard says, “it’s still going to be the same contact.” Pollard makes a strong point about some of the existing, and promising, technical advances that allow medical personnel to quantify the amount of force a player is taking to the head. “We can do all that,” Pollard says of such innovations. “But the collisions and everything else — it stays the same.” No helmet can prevent those car crashes in the first place.

The only way to really prevent injury, Pollard says, is to just make football a shell of its violent self. “There’s nothing you can do,” he says. “Nobody is exempt. You’re going to have your injuries. You’re going to have your concussions. You’re going to have your broken bones, everything else. But I think for the most part, we as football players know what we signed up for.”

While Obama said he’d have to think “long and hard” about permitting his son to play football, Pollard has already made up his mind. “I don’t want him playing football,” Pollard says. He’s not alone: according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the number of kids ages 6 to 12 participating in tackle football was down 35% from 2007 to 2011.

Pollard’s son is about to turn 5. “He wants to throw the football around, he wants to be tackled, all that stuff — I see it in him,” Pollard says. And it’s wrenching for Pollard to watch his son take to the game. “My wife and I talk about it all the time,” he says. “It sucks. I know that concussions can happen anywhere. But just to see him going through the daily grind, and the aches and the pains of the body at a young age, I don’t want see my son go through that.”

Many players don’t agree with Pollard and won’t agonize over a parenting decision about football, like Obama says he would. “If I want to share any information with President Obama, that would be it — never shatter your kid’s dreams, if that’s what they want to do,” says Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who also spent media day trying to deflect a Sports Illustrated report that showed how Lewis may have used a spray, extracted from deer antlers and containing a banned substance, to help him recover from the triceps injury he suffered in October. Says San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman: “I think if you try to take it out of our kids’ lives, just because you don’t think it’s safe, you’re kind of living your life for them.”

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While the “Will your kids play football?” question draws a variety of answers, players aren’t seeing Pollard’s doomsday fate for the sport. They’re confident that the NFL won’t dissolve. But they fear it won’t look the same. “In 10 to 20 years, I think the rules will change a lot,” says San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis says. “It’s already no helmet to helmet. It might be flag football.”

Davis then says he’s just joking. But can you believe him? These days, football’s future is all about doubt.

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