It's an industry struggling with a central question: How to protect the rookies who are the future without admitting to any liability for the past? A total of 4,300 former players — fully one-quarter of the NFL's alumni — are suing the league, claiming it concealed the links between repetitive head trauma and chronic neurological diseases while profiting on violence. The concussion litigation has put billions of dollars potentially at stake.
Perhaps just as important, it has planted a question in the minds of the audience, including millions of parents, whether to steer their sons to another sport. Even the president of the United States said in a January interview with the New Republic that he would think "long and hard" before letting a son play football. So did Howie Long.
This halting attempt to break from the past and move into a healthier future is personified in the Long family, which now will have not one but two sons in the league; their eldest, Chris, 28, is a defensive end with the St. Louis Rams. The Long boys dream of Super Bowl rings and perhaps a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, like their dad. Howie and Diane wouldn't mind that, but what they want from the modern NFL is more modest and fundamental: that it take better care of their sons than it did of the father, who can barely turn his head.
"The thing that is non-negotiable with the kids is I monitor and stay on where they are from neck up," Howie says, "and if it became an issue I would strongly recommend packing it in."
The likelihood is that Kyle will experience injury in his career. The NFL Players Association recently commissioned a study of injury data, which counted 3,126 injuries last season. Nearly half required at least a week of recovery, and more than 350 resulted in surgery. That means Kyle is entering a profession with an injury rate well over 100 percent — and an unforgiving habit of discarding its wounded.