Why you should care

Because quitting reckless stupidity greatly reduces serious risks to your health.

Pop parental quiz: Your 7-year-old boy is rifling through the boxes in the basement and comes across an old football helmet and a pack of Marlboro Lights. Which do you allow him to pick up, and begin a lifelong hobby?

The answer is neither, if you’re concerned about traumatic brain injuries and degenerative brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), now clearly linked to playing football. On the cigarettes issue, you’ve got abundant help from the feds, with taxes, lawsuits against Joe Camel and those surgeon general warnings on every pack. On football? You’ve got President Obama admitting he wouldn’t let his son play pro football. We say it’s time for a full-throated government intervention to protect children — and to help parents make more informed decisions. That’s right: Give Big Football the Big Tobacco treatment.

Not so very long ago, it was hard to go anywhere in America and not see a cigarette. You could even light up on an airplane with the same ease as you’d fire up your tablet today. Then came the landmark Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964, which linked smoking to lung cancer and heart disease; the report, says Mike Stobbe, author of Surgeon General’s Warning, “forever changed the national conversation about the dangers of smoking.” Congress would follow with a 1965 law requiring cigarette packs to carry warning labels, and, 50 years later, according to the surgeon general’s office, adult smoking rates in the U.S. had plummeted from 43 percent (in 1965) to 18 percent (in 2015).

Football raises many of the same uncomfortable issues as cigarettes did.

Even as the smoke receded across the bars and social gatherings of America over the past five decades, a new national passion took root: football. It raises many of the same uncomfortable issues about public health, hard science and protecting America’s youth as cigarettes did. Studies suggest that up to 15 percent of football players may suffer a mild traumatic brain injury — and teenage players may suffer almost 2 million brain injuries — every year. In a congressional hearing earlier this year, a representative of the National Football League, accused by experts and players of hiding the dangers of head injuries for decades, acknowledged a link between brain disorders like CTE and playing football. (A league spokesman did not respond to a request to comment further.)

Indeed, the league’s response to research linking football to CTE and concussions “in some ways has mirrored Big Tobacco’s response to data linking smoking to lung cancer,” says Chris Nowinski, executive director of the nonprofit Concussion Legacy Foundation. Those similarities, says Nowinski, include conducting and funding flawed research and targeting children despite the known risks. There is no question, says Nowinski, that the government should “intervene to protect children from unnecessary brain injury and preventable brain disease.”

The question is, how? Turns out, a surgeon general’s warning before every NFL game or broadcast would probably not be enough. Warnings on cigarette packs alone have a negligible effect on smoking rates, Stobbe points out; taxes, smoking bans, advertising restrictions and graphic public service announcements had much more influence.

So perhaps something a bit more bombastic is needed to grab the jersey of the average fan and shake some sense into Americans, who love their football the way they used to love their smokes. Imagine an opening sequence to Monday Night Football featuring a dramatic highlight reel that slows down on each collision, zooming through the helmet to show a cross section of the traumatized brain, as the theme music blares.

Da dun da dun …

Now … are you ready for some football?

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