Plight of Gale Sayers, Dwight Clark should scare football parents

Gale Sayers’ family said last week that the former Bears great has dementia. Former 49ers receiver Dwight Clark announced Sunday that he has ALS. Quite the several days for the sport of football.

Let’s pause while we wait for the NFL to say that there is no proof the game caused what is ailing Sayers and Clark but that its heart goes out to the men and their families.

There are No. 2 pencil erasers bigger than the NFL’s heart, so feel free to dismiss whatever sentiments the league chooses to blow out of its public-relations trombone.

The question isn’t whether playing the game is dangerous to brains or not, though the evidence seems clear it is. The question is why any parent today would allow a child to play football. To do so is to hope against hope that the link between football and long-term brain damage is fiction or that your child will be lucky enough to go unscathed.

Former Bears running back Gale Sayers (right) at a game at Soldier Field last season. Dick Butkus is next to Sayers. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Sayers sued the NFL in 2013, saying it failed to protect him from ‘‘devastating concussive head traumas.’’ Now he needs constant attention. His wife, Ardie, told the Kansas City Star that her 73-year-old husband recently tried to wash his hands with carpet cleaner.

Clark, 60, said he doesn’t know whether football led to his getting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ‘‘but I certainly suspect it did.’’

I don’t want to paint a picture of a sport that produces an army of drooling, vacant-eyed former players. Many men who played high school, college and pro football appear to be perfectly healthy. But there certainly is a steady stream of people who think head trauma caused by the sport has altered their lives in a profound way.

How far are parents willing to go with football, especially with all the information we now have about its health risks? One former player after another steps forward, with the help of a wheelchair, a loved one’s arm or somebody else’s voice. Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian spent seven hours with Sayers and his wife and noted the Hall of Fame running back hardly talked during that time.

That’s not how anyone wants to think of Sayers, nor is it what anyone envisioned for him when he was tearing up the NFL in a career cut short by knee injuries.

It’s hard to tell a high school kid he’s not allowed to play football. It’s hard to tell a high school kid anything. Perhaps it would be more realistic for parents to draw a line when it comes to youth tackle football. Is there a good reason 10-year-olds should be risking helmet-to-helmet collisions? Flag football seems like a reasonable alternative for children younger than high school age.

When I’ve written about this topic in the past, a silence always has followed. Few parents want to think about the possibility of long-term damage to their sons. They’re too caught up in the excitement of the competition and the lessons of teamwork the game teaches. Some of them think their kids will get scholarships to play Division I football.

It’s very human to think, ‘‘Not my kid.’’ But this is scary stuff. And if you don’t think it is, you’re purposely not paying attention.

Several former NFL players have said they won’t allow their children to play football. That has served as a very loud wakeup call for parents. There was a slight increase in the number of children ages 6 to 12 who played tackle football in the United States in 2015, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But that increase — from 1.216 million in 2014 to 1.23 million the next year — can’t hide some darker figures: In 2009, 3.96 million kids ages 6 to 17 played tackle football. Six years later, the number had fallen to 3.21 million.

Those numbers are why the NFL is so involved in educating young players and their parents about proper tackling and concussion awareness. Fewer people playing might mean less public interest in the game, which might translate into a drop in profits. The NFL really, really likes money, so much so that it has discovered a conscience no one knew it had. Funny what lawsuits
and dark thoughts about the future of the game can do.

Some former players don’t like to talk about the concussions they have suffered, and you can understand why. The possibility of ending up with a debilitating condition isn’t something people want to discuss. Avoidance and prayer are easier alternatives.

Until you’ve lost the ability to avoid, pray and feed yourself.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.