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A stadium packed with thou­sands of fans        chanted, cheered, and screamed as the Ohio State Uni­versity football team pum­meled Penn State Uni­versity. This was my first expe­rience at a “real” football game, and I was over­whelmed to be part of a crowd larger than the entire pop­u­lation of Aruba.

When I shared that real­ization with my step­mother, she blinked and pursed her lips and told me to never say such things again – not until halftime, at the very least.

“This is football!” she admon­ished.

My step­mother isn’t the only fan who con­siders football an untouchable emblem of what makes America great. Mil­lions of fans turn out every year to watch football players bash into each other, and resist any threat to their game.

But many don’t seem to realize that the game itself cur­rently poses the greatest threat to its con­ti­nuity.

A rash of high-profile sui­cides among former NFL stars has gar­nered national attention, with three casu­alties in the last 19 months alone, including retired line­backer Junior Seau and former safeties Ray East­erling and Dave Duerson.

East­erling, Duerson, and poten­tially Seau – his autopsy results have yet to be released – suf­fered from chronic trau­matic encephalopathy (CTE), a pro­gressive neu­ro­logical dis­order similar to Alzheimer’s.  In both dis­eases, the patient’s brain shuts down due to the presence of tau, a protein that builds up in the brain cells.

Unlike Alzheimer’s, CTE is not genetic. It is the result of the repeated head injury almost indelibly asso­ciated with tackle football.

According to Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Uni­versity of North Car­olina Sports Con­cussion Research Program, a lineman will be struck in the head nearly a thousand times during the average football season. And not a little bump or jostle. On average, the force of each blow is com­pa­rable to that sus­tained by someone who drove his car into a brick wall at 25 mph without wearing a seatbelt and bashed his head into the wind­shield.

This means that by the time a lineman on a Division I team reaches his senior year, he would have been in the equiv­alent of 8,000 car acci­dents.

“There is some­thing wrong with this group as a cohort,” said Bennet Omalu, neu­ropathol­ogist, CTE researcher, and founding member of the Brain Injury Research Institute, who has studied well over twenty brains belonging to former NFL players, only finding one that lacked the defin­itive markers of CTE – a brain that belonged to a 24-year-old running-back who played in the NFL for less than two years.

“There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker in 2009. “We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else – neither con­sid­er­a­tions of science nor those of morality – can compete.”

Because of that love, which often verges on worship, many fans ignore the serious issues con­fronting players and demand no changes from the NCAA and the NFL, claiming, “This is football!” as they slap on ear­muffs and head to the stadium.

In The American Spec­tator, Daniel J. Flynn claims that “There’s no evi­dence, just spec­u­lation” con­necting the NFL sui­cides, CTE, and football. His sim­plistic con­clusion: “Playing football is good for you. Being a wuss isn’t.”

Perhaps the real “wusses” are in the cheering, stamping crowd, making no move to protect the very men for whom they cheer and blotting out the threat entirely.