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Defending the Indefensible

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Cheerleading more dangerous than football? The Heritage Foundation, a well-known Washington-based conservative think tank that has a knack for being on the wrong side of history continues this unenviable trend by defending the above ridiculous comparison.

Heritage's enthusiastic support of the fallacious view that football is not a dangerous game is manifested through promotion of conservative writer Daniel Flynn's recent book, The War on Football. In the work, Flynn challenges the increasing body of evidence that participation in organized tackle football all too often leads to chronic disability, fatal brain disease, and early death, particularly at the professional level. Indeed, Flynn contends that football is safer than bicycling, skiing and -- yes -- cheerleading.

A major inspiration for his astonishing conclusion is a 2012 National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study on brain disease among retired football players. It is a study that Flynn claims exonerates the game from classification as a serious health risk.

Flynn is correct that the study concludes that football players on average live longer than their counterparts in the general population. But what about the quality of that life? He says little or nothing about the chronic pain and reduced mobility often resulting from lingering gridiron injuries.

In a more serious omission, Flynn casually dismisses the NIOSH study's finding that football retirees face an inflated risk of brain disease, presumably from cumulative concussive blows to the head incurred on the field of play. It is hard to ignore the study's conclusion that the retired players are from three to four times more likely to die from Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's disease, and other brain disorders than the general public. Parenthetically, the retirees' recent successful lawsuit against the NFL to recover damages for football-related injuries reflects that concern.

Flynn's cynical response to all this is to ascribe the concussion "scare" to neurologists seeking to expand their medical practice.

Contrary to the author's rosy tome, the health statistics gathered so far on players' post football life are grim, even if they manage to avoid a fatal brain disorder. Specialists at the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation have concluded the following: Chances are better than even that an individual who plays only though high school will suffer an injury with painful after effects that will persist throughout life, intensifying as he ages and prematurely reducing mobility despite surgical interventions. The odds rise to 75 percent for college players and virtually 100 percent for the pros.

Dr. Jeff Saal, who was a consulting physician for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, readily admitted that that the sport's constant pounding resulted in virtually every retired pro leaving the game with degenerative spinal disc disease that aged their bodies and decreased their mobility 30 to 40 years before their time.

Flynn argues that football is vital because it builds character by instilling discipline, focus and camaraderie. But so do many other sports with far less risk of severe chronic and sometimes fatal injury.

Whitewashing the lethality of football is a silly contrarian exercise in defending the indefensible. Flynn and his Heritage Foundation backers may cringe at the thought, but how far from realization is the emergence of a professional flag football league?

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