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Extra Points: Concussion issue clouds Super Bowl week

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Updated: 1/28 10:08 am

New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Super Bowl week is really just a big party celebrating America's favorite distraction, professional football.

Consider the bill this week in the Big Apple and North Jersey. Phillip Phillips and The Band Perry were the latest additions to the festivities with both set to perform as part of the Super Bowl XLVIII pregame show.

In addition, Broadway will hop the Hudson when the cast of the Tony and Grammy Award winning musical Jersey Boys and the cast of Rock of Ages perform at the NFL Tailgate Party.

The main event, besides the actual game of course, is Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Super Bowl halftime show.

By any tangible metric the NFL is a juggernaut. Championship Sunday resulted in an AFC Championship Game between Denver and New England which averaged 51.3 million viewers on CBS, up a stunning 22 percent from the early game the year prior between San Francisco and Atlanta, perhaps a nod to the star power Peyton Manning and Tom Brady bring to the table.

The Seahawks' 23-17 victory over the 49ers in the NFC title tilt, meanwhile, pulled in a whopping 55.9 million viewers on FOX, a 17 percent upgrade from the Ravens-Patriots, who occupied the late window in 2013.

CBS confirmed its telecast was the second-highest rating for an AFC game in 17 years, behind a 28.3 for Jets-Steelers in 2011. FOX, on the other hand, had the highest-rated non-overtime NFC game since 1997.

Both broadcasts were the most watched television programs since Super Bowl XLVII between Baltimore and San Francisco was taken in by 164.1 million viewers, making it the most-viewed show in U.S. television history according to The Nielsen Company.

It's almost laughable to suggest the NFL is in trouble when you look at those kinds of numbers but there are issues that need to be addressed if the league plans on sustaining its grip on the public.

When it comes to concussions, most NFL officials still feign ignorance regarding the league's past as it relates to brain trauma, almost a legal necessity even after a $765 million settlement the league reached last summer with former players.

That settlement did not concede liability for brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) but a federal judge has yet to approve the deal and its eventual conclusion is no guarantee against future litigation by inventive legal minds.

Over the past few years commissioner Roger Goodell has turned the subject of player safety into dogma. An unintended consequence of that, however, is that the NFL has become far less enjoyable game to watch with a series of rule changes that have toned down the violence and some say, the excitement of the game.

Thousands of fans will take the moral high ground and claim they don't care about that as long as their heroes are safe. Far more, however, will slowly move on to something else, realizing they no longer enjoy what was once an indispensable part of their world.

The fall may be slow, but it's almost inevitable.

History tells us that even the strongest of empires will eventually collapse. Take your pick -- whether you study the Ottoman Empire, the Han Dynasty, the Roman Empire or the grandiose British Empire, which once covered a quarter of both the Earth's total land area and population, being too big to fail isn't just a flawed government philosophy, it's almost a brilliant foreshadowing of the future.

More than a few think the United States, the world's one true superpower since the end of the Cold War, is currently in the midst of an inevitable market correction thanks to mind-numbingly poor leadership over the past two decade or so.

In the sports world -- at least in this country -- the NFL is the equivalent of the British Empire at its apex.

Yet the cracks in the foundation are evident and the concussion issue is like a termite, burrowing in.

Even President Barack Obama has chimed in with his opinion , telling The New Yorker he believes NFL players "know what they're doing" and understand the effect concussions could have on their long-term health, but says he would not let his son (if he had one) play football.

"At this point, there's a little bit of caveat emptor," Obama told the magazine. "These guys, they know what they're doing. They know what they're buying into. It is no longer a secret. It's sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?

"I would not let my son play pro football,"

Think about that for a minute.

The most powerful man in the world wouldn't allow his kid to play this game.

If enough parents agree with their President and steer their children toward other sports, the NFL's feeder system will eventually dry up.

That may sound alarmist and the worst-case scenario is at least a generation away but the problem is real.

The Sports Legacy Institute, the non-profit which has been at the forefront of CTE research, was at the Super Bowl media center again on Monday to announce its new "Hit Count program," an effort to monitor and limit concussions and subconcussive brain trauma in sports.

Ex-World Wrestling Entertainment star Christopher Nowinski, the founding executive director of SLI, along with former Super Bowl winners Mike Haynes and Ted Johnson, and a number of doctors were there to unveil the results of a two-year process to develop a so-called "pitch count for the brain."

"I owe it to my son to count the number of hits to his head in sports to lower his risk of concussions and subconcussive brain damage," Johnson, a noted tough guy while with the Patriots, said.

The goal of "Hit Count" is to develop and promote guidelines to regulate the amount of brain trauma that a child is allowed to incur in sports, certainly a noble venture when taken at face value.

"The idea is can we develop a pitch count for the brain," Nowinski said. "Research using sensor devices has revealed that each year in the United States, there are over 1.5 billion impacts to the heads of youth and high school football players. Most hits are unnecessary and occur in practice. By utilizing Hit Count certified products as a teaching tool for coaches and a behavior modification tool for athletes, we can eliminate over 500 million head impacts next season."

A lofty and perhaps unreachable goal because technology plays into this with sensors monitoring hits and attempting to record the level on impact reliably. Dr. Gerard Gioia, the chief of pediatric neuropsychology at George Washington University, revealed that 20g (1g is the impact you take from walking) is the current threshold, although admits it's just a hypothesis and could change often.

"Current science does not provide a safe or 'unsafe hit count," said Gioia. "Our goal is to eventually provide clear guidance for coaches and parents. We will need the youth sports, sensor manufacturer, and medical science communities to work together to provide reliable answers."

The consequences here range from the cynical -- the substantive cost of implementing sensors and tracking equipment at the youth level which would also line the pockets of "Hit Count" investors -- to the practical -- this whole process will probably scare the you know what out of mothers around the country, who are already leery about having their little darlings play what is at its core a violent game.

The fact that the NFL allows the SLI inside its own media center speaks to how far the league has come when it comes to the concussion issue but it also magnifies just how flawed this dynamic is.

"I want to thank the NFL for allowing us here," Nowinski said. "They never ask us what we are doing or what we are rolling out."

SLI's manta is "solving the concussion crisis," but the stark reality is they are trying to tackle a problem with only one solution -- eliminating the game of football.

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