There's no such thing as a safe professional football game. Buffalo Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb's concussion Saturday -- at least the third of his career -- could end his playing days. Many similar football injuries have been linked to life-altering neurological disorders.
But the National Football League has been slow to acknowledge the danger of concussions. Now comes word that league officials may have pressured sports programming giant ESPN to end its partnership with PBS's "Frontline" on a hard-hitting TV documentary investigating head injuries in football. NFL and ESPN officials denied that outside influence affected the network's decision to pull out of the production, which came after it spent 15 months working on "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis."
Allegations that the NFL is using the power of its multibillion dollar product to control its media partners aren't new. In 2004, the NFL leaned on ESPN to halt the fictional drama "Playmakers," which tackled, among other things, drug and steroid use in professional football. Similarly, the two-part concussion documentary -- scheduled to premiere Oct. 8 -- is expected to have a bleak take on the league's reaction to repeated head injuries and their effects on the brain.
With players seemingly becoming bigger, stronger and faster each year, concussions have become an epidemic. There were 170 reported last season, and in a sporting culture that enshrines toughness, many players often ignore or overlook symptoms in order to stay on the field. Perhaps one result: NFL players are three times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's than the general population.
The NFL hasn't done nothing. The league has amended on-field rules in an effort to limit hits to the head -- admittedly a paradox for players, referees and fans alike. It mandated standardized sideline concussion evaluations during games. And it partnered with General Electric in March to fund $40-million worth of concussion research.
But such recent moves don't erase decades of inaction. More than 4,000 retired players have sued the league, claiming it concealed the long-term dangers of repeated head injuries. It's an enormous potential liability that could be furthered by Frontline's expose. Acknowledging a failure to protect players could be expensive for the NFL. But it could also help the league regain credibility on this issue.
Playing football will never be risk-free. But unless the sport's dangers are recognized and addressed at the highest levels, the next generation of Pop Warner players may very well be choosing a different sport.