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Article posted: 11/12/2013 9:12 PM

Even in crisis, NFL players, fans still love their game

By Barry Rozner

Like never before in its history, the NFL is under siege.

Perhaps not since the 1919 Black Sox scandal has a sport been faced with so much shame at one time.

The sport is dying, we are told.

It is too violent, too dangerous, even for grown men to play. They are informed daily that they will suffer memory loss, crippling injuries and shortened lives.

The concussion issue was a nonstop narrative -- until dwarfed by Richie Incognito, which has turned the NFL into a league of bullies and bigots.

The NFL will never survive.

Of course, this is what the players read and hear at least a few times a day. Some of it is quite true, and they ought to take seriously their health now, or regret it later.

But some of it is a staggering overreaction, according to the men who play the game.

"It's hard to see some of it," said Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod, a seven-year veteran. "I love this game so much. I wanted to play this game. I chose to play the game."

Despite the risks.

"I understand there's risks, but there's risks in a lot of things in life," Bushrod said. "It's almost like people who don't really understand everything about it want to make a decision for you. I chose this game because I love this game.

"There's so much noise out there that if you want to pay attention to all of it, you can't focus on what's in this room."

Every Bears player asked thought the Miami scandal was disgraceful, especially in light of the hazing and racial slurs involved, but nearly every one of them also was careful to say that they don't yet know all the facts.

"It hurts to see all the bad things," said 13-year veteran Roberto Garza. "The game is attacked and everything is blown out of proportion -- although some things like (Miami) should be, and some things clearly shouldn't happen.

"But when you have so many players from so many different backgrounds and there's 1,600 players, things are gonna happen just like in any business. But we're at the forefront because the game is the most popular game in the world and it's so big.

"It's unfortunate because you have a lot of great people doing great things in the community, but you don't hear about that."

Nevertheless, Garza feels lucky to be a part of it.

"It's a privilege, man," he said. "It's the best league in the world, and it's a privilege to play this game. You have to appreciate it every day, because it could be taken away so fast.

"It's a dream to put on a uniform for the Chicago Bears and represent your family, your community and your friends, and go out there and do what you love. It's something every guy in here appreciates."

Cal product Chris Conte is a smart guy from an educated family, too smart -- some might say -- to want to get his brains bashed in for a living. His mom wouldn't even let him play football until he was in high school.

Yet, here he is in the NFL, well into his third season.

"There's probably been a time in every sport where they had to fight through the headlines like now," Conte said. "But I don't believe the sport is dying. I love the game. Everyone here loves the game. We're always going to have people who want to play this game."

As civilians, we obviously have different ideas about the NFL than the men who play it. To us, bullying is horrific, racism deplorable and violence against the cultural norm.

But talk to the men who play NFL football and you find they are as frustrated as we are, but for different reasons. They are reluctant to explain because they don't believe we will ever understand the bond necessary, or the courage inherent, to being a part of an NFL team and playing on Sundays.

It's a fascinating discussion because no one's kidding anyone here. The NFL has a lot of problems and they're not going away. Hazing may be today's story, but it's brain damage that threatens the league's very existence.

Still, the game has never been more popular. And to listen to the men who risk their health on the fields of America is to understand that they are resolute in their belief that there will always be young men willing to play football.

And there will always be an NFL.


ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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