Football season is approaching a zenith. High schools, colleges and the pros are all moving along in their seasons. It’s an especially successful time for MU and Chiefs fans. I can’t remember when both were undefeated so far into the season. But my feelings about football are conflicted. I know other old timers are, too, because I’ve heard them speaking out on sports talk radio as I make a long commute back and forth to my day job. The “League of Denial” documentary about concussions suffered by football players has stirred discussion. Public television last week aired the show presented by Frontline. The show basically stated that for pro football players who suffered tragic deaths, such as suicide, studies of their brains show disease and damage from repeated concussions. The conflict is that for years the National Football League denied playing the game can cause brain disease. A bigger issue for America is that watching football borders on religion for many and we’ve trusted that those managing or coaching the game always placed safety first. Enthusiasm for the NFL game over the years has filtered down into approach and attitude at the college, high school, junior high and even younger ranks. We love the speed, power and violence. Fast runs, long passes and great catches earn our applause. But over the years, we’ve also applauded the big hit, the smack we can hear all the way in the stands or on TV. Sideline microphones capture the sound of the game for broadcasts and the sound of the big hit stirs excitement. The feelings of unease stirred by the Frontline broadcast might be stronger in old timers than for players of recent decades. When I played high school football in the late 1960s, we were taught to block and tackle by planting our helmet’s facemask right in the opposing player’s chest. Helmet-to-helmet hitting was also common. Sometimes in a game a player would “get their bell rung” and stay out for a play or two. Sometimes they’d just keep going because we were taught that toughness was everything to be a winner. We held two-a-day practices in full gear starting Aug. 15. The heat was miserable morning and afternoon. In mid-practice there would be a break. The student managers would bring out two or three bags of ice. Sweating, red-faced, panting players would stand in line and be allowed to reach in the bag and grab one handful of ice — and one handful only. We would suck on that ice for moisture. Then we’d have the second half of practice. Losing 10-to-15 pounds of weight in sweat during practice was not unusual, losing 5-to-10 pounds was common. One time, a poor showing in a season-opening game on a hot night prompted our coach to deny water at halftime, and we all suffered repeat leg cramps between plays in the second half. This practice of denying water was halted by rules in later decades due to heat-related deaths in the high school ranks. Now teams usually start early-season practices without pads. Coaches give players plenty of water, if not sports drinks like Gatorade. More emphasis is now placed on head and neck protection at all levels of football. Safety seems a far bigger concern. Referees are quicker to throw penalty flags for illegal blocks or unnecessary roughness. Still, football is a bit like smoking cigarettes. Anyone can see there are dangers. It is by nature a violent sport. That’s part of the excitement. I really enjoyed playing high school football. I can see why college and pro players like the game. But it’s clear from the Frontline report that concussions, especially repeat concussions or repeat blows to the head, can cause major problems in the most important organ in the human body, the brain. And as I said, I recall that parts of the game once accepted as OK are now not OK. We trusted before and were wrong, which makes me wonder about now? Sports can bring so many benefits to students. They learn teamwork and that it’s possible to push their minds and bodies to higher levels of performance. As fans, we have been the recipients of powerful marketing regarding football at the pro and college levels. But we better make sure we are supporting safety as much as the thrills. The people who play are more important than the game itself.