The very last question asked in this interview of Dr. James Andrews are the five words that worry me the most about the long-term prospects for football: "Can it ever be safe?"
And the simplest, least nuanced answer to that question is no. No, a game where size, speed, and frequent collision are encouraged can never be safe. The thrill of football doesn't, as some would claim, necessarily lie in that violence. We love Clowney's Outback Bowl hit, but we also went nuts for Auburn's miracle Hail Mary against Georgia. But the potential for injury's always there, and it's why you pause for a second when the trainer gets called out to the field.
This isn't meant to be a definitive statement on the medical issues attendant to football. It seems fair to say we thought we knew what the risks were for a time, and now we're learning that particular circle may be widening - perhaps a little, perhaps quite a lot. And there may be a point where we can actually know - and, more importantly, inform the potential participants - exactly what harm football can potentially do to the human body.
(The briefest of pauses for the scholar who decides to chime in with "they all know they could die on the field" as a retort to this idea of informed consent. We're all aware that driving a car means the possibility of death in an accident, but that shouldn't excuse a major automobile manufacturer from concealing a potentially deadly defect in their products. Now go away.)
In that time where we can present the risks in full, some people will still choose to play football. They may demand more money to do it, or better lifetime medical care, or only agree to do it for a shorter period of time. But there will still be people willing to accept the risk. And maybe that will be enough for us. We'll know that the players, at all levels, weren't kept in the dark or pushed to ignore health concerns or only given the full picture far too late.
But maybe it won't. Maybe football can't be safe. Not in the you might tear your knee to shreds or you might break a finger sense. In the bigger, more sobering one. And I honestly don't know how I'll feel watching that game. It's a lot harder to watch someone gamble if you know how bad their odds are.