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Add Another Risk Factor To Those Faced By Players In The NFL

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pro football faces an insidious yet mysterious disease, and that was true even before the pandemic. The disease is CTE. That's chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That's a dementia-causing brain ailment that doctors believe develops from, among other causes, the type of head injuries experienced on the field. Here's commentator Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA: This year, you may not have heard as much about concussions in the NFL as you usually do. A reason for that is there is a pressing national health emergency that has crowded out discussion of other concerns. But another reason is that each year more, and more well-known NFL athletes opt out of the game while still in what should be the primes of their careers, citing health concerns. That has the effect of focusing our attention for a while.

But this year, the surprising health-related retirement hasn't followed the usual script. Last year, quarterback Andrew Luck retired, citing not his brain health but his overall health. Before that, it was Patrick Willis and Calvin Johnson, who have Hall of Fame-type resumes, along with several other young players who'll never be enshrined in Canton but now may be able to one day toss their children in the air and catch them without feeling pain.

This year, Luke Kuechly was the player on a Hall of Fame trajectory who retired early. Just 28, Kuechly has missed games with concussions three years in a row. He announced in January that the 2019 season would be his last.

But then came the pandemic, which overwhelmed not just conversation but possibly obscured further retirements. The NFL and players had agreed to a $150,000 salary advance for any player opting out of the season for health concerns and a $350,000 stipend if a player with preexisting health conditions opted out. While this isn't free money, it does change the calculation about announcing a retirement versus keeping your options open while bringing in some income by opting out of the season.

And I'll tell you one other change calculation at the intersection of COVID, concussions and the NFL. For a few years, you may have heard speculation that tackle football was in danger of eventual extinction. The idea was that as the consequence of football injuries to the brain became more understood and publicized, fewer parents would let their kids play and fewer players would themselves stick with the sport.

But the corona pandemic has suggested to me those predictions may have been too extreme. We are now faced with evidence every day that there is no uniformity in how seriously people take health warnings, how deeply they understand medical advice and to what extent they calculate risk. There is a wide variety in the public's willingness to curtail current activities out of deference to the possibility of future impairment. In professional sports, that decision can include millions of dollars - a mighty motivator not just in accepting risk but in the accuracy of the very calculation itself.

It also strikes me that the places in American culture which take the virus most seriously overlap with the places where prediction of football's demise were most entrenched. And the places least likely to shut down for corona or to advise forceful measures were the places where football isn't a pastime; it's a belief system.

This season, more than most, it's clear that football is a game that can be thrilling but also dangerous, rewarding but exacting. Everyone associated with it knows that it contains risks and extracts a price, but there's no consensus on what that price may be.

INSKEEP: Insights from our friend Mike Pesca, who is host of Slate's daily podcast "The Gist."

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WHISPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.