Dallas Clark has played in the NFL for a decade. He has experienced the highs of Super Bowls and the pained lows of dizzying head trauma and other brutal injuries. As a longtime player, he was perfect to ask two simple questions.
Knowing what you do now about the potential damage football is doing to your body, and possibly your ability to function normally in the future, would you do it all again?
And, also, would you let your kids play football, the sport that made you famous and wealthy, but could nonetheless pose a risk to them as well?
Clark's answer to the first question was a simple yes. The answer to the second was more complicated and best demonstrates the results of a CBSSports.com poll of NFL players. A few are so concerned about the violence of the sport -- and the growing information that such violence could have devastating long-term consequences, particularly on the brain -- that they no longer want their children to play the sport that the players cherish.
The poll of dozens of players shows that while some have no issues with their children playing football, four players said they would not want their children to play the game that has made them famous. This alone shows how the renewed emphasis of player safety, and the increasing knowledge that comes along with it, is reshaping how players view football so much they don't want their children to play it.
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"I don't want my kids to play football," said Clark. "I hope I made the sacrifice that they don't have to. But it's a double-edge sword. So many great things in my life have happened because of football. Friends, experiences, camaraderie.
"When you play sports, you know what I am talking about. If you've been through it, you know what I am talking about. It's that bond. There is something about camp and putting so much on the line and doing it with your brother and having that bond. That is so special. It carries over to real life. To be committed to a job. It's not natural. You learn it through football and carry it over to the real world for a 9-to-5 job."
"It seems like all of the evidence points to my playing football as basically slowly killing myself," said one Denver Broncos player. "Why would I want that for my kids?"
"Only thing I know is football," said a player for the Chicago Bears, "but I want my kids to be doctors and lawyers."
Said Saints wide receiver Lance Moore, when asked if he would let his children play: "We'll see. I would hate to tell them they can't play. Your long-term health is more important. But I will have to wait and see."
CBSSports.com interviewed 39 players from almost two dozen teams over a four-week period this summer. While the majority of players said they would allow their children to play football, a surprisingly high number said they would not.
Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble and defensive end Charles Johnson, 49ers guard Mike Iupati and defensive end Ray McDonald, Bengals fullback Brian Leonard, Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, Jaguars defensive lineman Terrance Knighton and defensive end Jeremy Mincey, among other players, all said they would play football again knowing all of the dangers, and would also allow their children to play.
What the poll of players also demonstrates is an almost cavalier -- and possibly morbid -- attitude toward the potential dangers of the sport. While there is an acknowledgement of increased information about brain injuries and safety measures from the NFL and players union there is also, in some cases, a belief among some players the health issues may be exaggerated.
"Will concussions have an effect on your cognizant memory?" asked Texans linebacker Connor Barwin. "There are a lot of things that can affect it as you get older. I don't think it's a direct correlation to concussions. They try to make it a simple connection. I think it's a very complex issue. Concussion can be a part of it, but there are a lot of other issues."
"I don't believe a lot of this concussion talk," said one Minnesota Vikings player. "Nothing has been proven to me."
This was not an unusual sentiment among players. It backs the NFL's belief that extraordinary measures must be taken to, in some cases, save the players from themselves. The union counters that the league is hypocritical in its approach regarding player safety since the NFL has pushed for an 18-game season.
The player safety issue, particularly regarding concussions, remains perhaps the most discussed topic in the sport. Commissioner Roger Goodell broached the subject during a lecture at the Harvard School of Public Health on Thursday night.
|Concussions by team (through week 10)|
4: Jacksonville, Kansas City, N.Y. Giants, Tennessee, Washington
3: Cleveland, New England, N.Y. Jets, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle
2: Chicago, Denver, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Miami, Minnesota, Pittsburgh
1: Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego
0: Arizona, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay
Goodell addressed the concerns of kids playing football when he said: "It must be a thoughtful and informed decision."
"Head injuries occur in sports," said Goodell.
Goodell's main point in the speech: Football has brutal beginnings, and other brutal periods throughout its history, and it has changed. Now, another transformation is needed. He added that the player mentality remains "play through it" rather than safety.
"Change does not inhibit the game," Goodell said. "It improves it."
The NFL has enacted a series of protocols to protect players from concussions. Players cannot return to practice or a game after suffering a concussion without clearance from an independent doctor. Last December, the league revised its policy to mandate that independent athletic trainers are situated in the press box as observers. The trainers can contact team benches if they suspect a player suffered a head injury.
That more extensive policy was initiated following Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy suffering a blow to the head against Pittsburgh. Browns medical personnel never examined McCoy for a head injury.
The league is testing sensors in helmets, video for team doctors to review hits and Goodell mentioned that one possibility is limiting the weights of players on kickoff teams to make those plays safer.
However, the NFL Players Association believes even more precautions need to be put in place. The union wants sideline concussion experts present at every game; the NFL has thus far resisted the idea, according to a source close to the situation.
Concussion issues were again front-page news after a brutal Sunday when Philadelphia's Michael Vick, San Francisco's Alex Smith, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Shea McClellin and Buffalo's Fred Jackson all suffered concussions.
Goodell said the fact the quarterbacks were removed from the game represents progress in the fight against concussions.
In yet another indication of how the NFL is attempting to change the game's culture, Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins was fined $30,000 for his helmet-to-chin hit on Cutler. That is an unusually large fine for that type of hit and may have happened because the league wanted to make an example involving a high-profile player on one of the most popular teams in football.
The NFL has been embroiled in a magnificent fight against members of the New Orleans Saints over Bountygate, which has stood as a symbol of the impassioned and awkward battle between the NFL to make the game safer, and some players who think the league is overstepping its bounds and is hypocritical.
Despite the dangers, and controversies, a number of players say they wouldn't change a thing.
"Guys love the game too much," Saints guard Jahri Evans said. "I wouldn't change my decision to play the game at all. I want my family to play the game. I don't have any children. If they want to do what I do, they can play."
"Can't live your life in fear," said one Green Bay player. "And you certainly can't tell your kids to live in fear."
Players also expressed the belief that there are far more positives from playing football than negatives.
"It's one of those deals where head injuries are part of football," said Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph. "You wish you could avoid it. But I would still play again. I have two sons. My 9-year-old is playing right now. They both want to play. I will make them aware of the dangers and teach them how to protect themselves, but there are too many good things that come from the game. There are a lot of positives."
"I've never known anything else," said a Patriots player. "I'd have no choice. Football is what I do."
Senior NFL columnist Pete Prisco contributed to this report.