Regardless of motive, can't blame NFL for trying to make game safer

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers free safety Ryan Clark has been one of the more outspoken players regarding the NFL's heightened stance on player safety in recent years. However, Clark's recent revelation that some of his teammates smoke marijuana for pain-management is further proof that the NFL will never stop trying to do what it takes to make its league as safe as possible, because, at the end of the day, public perception of the game of football is paramount to keeping its league as popular as ever.

I know a guy through work who told me he was a distant cousin to Dwight White, the legendary Steelers defensive lineman from the 1970s, who unfortunately passed away in 2008, following complications from back surgery.

My acquaintance said White was a fellow attendee at a huge family reunion many years ago, and he was so battered and ravaged with pain from his playing days, that instead of interacting with his relatives, he mostly kept to himself as he hobbled around this outdoor venue, smoking marijuana, which he was legally prescribed for pain-management.

Therefore, a couple of weeks ago, when Steelers free safety Ryan Clark disclosed that several of his teammates smoke marijuana to, among other things, deal with the pain their NFL careers are putting their bodies through, I wasn't all that surprised, and I didn't doubt Clark's sincerity, with regards to the reasons for the use that he suggested.

Here's a quote from Clark's First Take interview, courtesy of CBSSports.com:

"I know guys on my team who smoke," Clark said. "A lot of it is stress relief. A lot of it is pain and medication. Guys feel like, 'If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.' Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to stress relieve and also to medicate themselves for pain. Guys are still going to do it."

There is no doubt football players must endure pain that most of us will never have to experience. While most fans can only dream of having the life-long financial security many football players are blessed with the second they sign their first professional contract, there are probably hundreds of retired players who would trade as least some of their riches for the physical quality of life that most ordinary citizens enjoy well past middle age.

Ever read Jerome Bettis' book and the stories he shared about the pain he had to deal with during a career that Steelers fans embraced and continue to celebrate to this day? When you read about the physical pain he had to endure to play football--including difficulty getting out of bed and walking down his stairs--you know he earned every cent he ever made, and unfortunately, you realize he'll probably pay a pretty stiff price, years from now.

Of course, the life-long problems a former NFL player has with his back or knees is one thing, but the neurological problems many have endured is down-right frightening, and no amount of money or fame is worth that kind of damage.

Thanks to the class-action lawsuit filed by thousands of former players, as well as the unfortunate stories involving former greats, like the late Mike Webster, whose life was destroyed by the years of head trauma he suffered during his 17 year playing career, we now know that NFL owners, coaches, players and maybe even team doctors spent many decades either in ignorance, or they just plain didn't care about the effects and consequences of head trauma.

Now that we know this, is it any wonder the NFL has tried its best to make the game as safe as possible in recent years?

From moving kick-offs up to the 35 yard line to fining and suspending players for head-to-head hits to more thorough post-concussion testing of its players to more funding for research of head trauma to more of an emphasis on proper tackling technique, the league has certainly made great strides in terms of trying to make an inherently violent and physically taxing game a little safer.

However, despite the public awareness regarding head trauma, this hasn't stopped players and fans alike from crying and screaming that the NFL is turning into "flag football."

Clark, himself, has been one of the more outspoken players about the NFL's heightened stance on safety. But isn't it a bit hypocritical for Clark to complain about the league's new (or more strictly enforced) rules on player safety and then fully admit that football is such a tough and physically demanding sport, painkillers and marijuana are being used to deal with the pain?

Like a lot of people, I'm not much of a fan of commissioner Roger Goodell, but regardless of his (and the owners) motives for trying to make the game safer (some say it's just a way to protect a billion dollar a year industry), does it really matter if it leads to improvements in player-safety and keeps the league as popular as ever?

I have a friend from Detroit who is a huge Lions and NFL fan, but the past couple of years, he's mentioned the dilemma of remaining a fan of a sport that exacts such a physical toll on a player, it can often lead to depression and suicide.

I can certainly see his point, because, as a die-hard fan of football for over 30 years, I've certainly wrestled with that dilemma myself, in recent years.

And I know the NFL sees my friend's point, because if more fans start to think that way, it won't take long before the billion dollar a year industry dries up.

Public relations is a big deal, and when fans start to get turned off by something, there's often an irreversible decline in popularity.

When I was a kid, boxing was huge, and the heavyweight championship of the world was maybe the most prestigious title in sports (people reportedly stood and cheered in theaters all across the country when Rocky Balboa defeated Apollo Creed to claim the fictional heavyweight crown in the film Rocky II), but I'd be hard-pressed to name any real-life boxer of relevance these days, as the sport is now marginalized, thanks to years of corruption and a lack of coverage by free TV.

I honestly don't know if there is any real way to make football any safer--not much could have kept Troy Polamalu safe a few years ago when he suffered concussion-like symptoms while going low to tackle the Chiefs Steve Maneri, a 290 offensive lineman and an eligible receiver who caught a swing-pass out of the out of the backfield--but when you hear of the tragic suicides of players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, and now the revelation that players are smoking pot just to relieve pain, I do know that the NFL won't stop trying.

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