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George Ayoub: For this fan, football passion flickers a bit

George Ayoub: For this fan, football passion flickers a bit

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A few weeks ago, I roamed the sidelines at a football game at Grand Island’s Memorial Stadium. The night before that, I checked out a game on television until it turned into a rout.

That’s been my schedule since August. Actually, since I can remember. This from a guy whose first love is baseball.

A hundred years ago, I played high school football; my son did for a few years, too. So did my father, who also played part of a fall in college until his knee went sideways.

To underscore the sport’s prominence in the neighborhood, open your window and look around: This is Nebraska, home to the 365-day, 24/7 obsession known as Husker football.

By any measure here or across the country, football is undoubtedly the sporting king. My status as its longtime subject, however, is in question.

I’ve had a nagging nit for about a year, a feeling that, for this football fan, something was amiss. A gust of something had hit my flame.

I’m thinking the trouble is at the top: Professional football is by far the most popular sport in America. The NFL, however, is awash in PR disasters, from new reports of concussion-related issues and the presence of a progressive degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), found in former players, to the Richie Incognito melodrama rife with race and bullying. In between are ongoing legal issues (667 arrests of players in the league since 2000).

Rarely do I now watch the NFL or its lesser minions: men in handsome ties endlessly discussing the NFL on ESPN, the league’s cheerleader/marketer/broadcaster.

Pro football ostensibly pumps the game’s bluest and best blood. It is the epitome of the sport played by the elite at the highest level. What happens at the top is bound to have an effect as its influence trickles down to colleges, high schools and youth leagues.

The numbers at the bottom are instructive, too: Pop Warner football, for kids from age 5 to 14, lost nearly 10 percent of its participants between 2010 and 2012. That’s the organization’s largest participation drop-off on record.

USA Football, an umbrella organization for youth football in partnership with the NFL, reported a nearly 7 percent dip in kids donning shoulder pads in 2011.

Many attribute the decline to new brain research that warns parents and coaches of the dangers of concussions and repeated blows to the bean.

A cultural shift is afoot, too. Jumping back into the fray after a bell ringing, once considered manly or taking one for the team, is rare given the guidelines under which coaches at all levels operate. Brains are becoming as important as brawn.

Rules that limit blows to the noggin are widely heralded as a positive development, although I’ve noticed that offenders and their coaches and fans are often incredulous when they are the targets of enforcement.

Perhaps my pangs of football discomfort have more to do with seeing my favorite players suffer and, in some cases, die from the beatings they took to keep me and millions entertained.

I know they did it freely and were well-compensated, but as a huge fan of men like Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year and was found to have CTE, I struggle with each new revelation of further damage to players.

If you’re wondering, I’m not in the camp to “sissify” the sport, nor do I believe new “targeting” rules get there.

Football is changing, however. The talking heads on ESPN worry about the waning numbers of kids suiting up. The NFL has a $35 billion enterprise to manage and protect. Entire communities and states revolve around football.

Maybe a new star or plucky underdog or classy champion will restoke my football fire.

Not that the flame is going out or even flickering. But I’ve felt it waver in the winds of change.

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