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If football and hockey were safer, would we watch?

Kent Nishimura/2011 Getty Images

With the NHL All-Star game and NFL Pro Bowl finished, it's back to reality for two of the most violent sports on the planet.

The two leagues paused their schedules to hold showcase events that no one takes seriously in part because no one is at risk of being separated from their senses.

What does that say about how we consume sports?

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The build up to the Super Bowl begins in earnest this week, and front and centre will be the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, led by the much-maligned and much fined James Harrison, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

The story relates how Pittsuburgh was thrown off balance mid-season when the NFL began cracking down on hits to the head; and how they - as a group - regained their equilibrium by resolving to keep dropping the hammer:

Even as the NFL sought to make its game safer, Pittsburgh found a way to make it no less punishing. "You could say we learned to adjust, a little bit," [Steelers safety Ryan]Clark said on Sunday night. "But we remained physical. People walking out of this place"-he pointed from the locker room to the Heinz turf outside-"still feel like they've been in a football game."

Meanwhile, real hockey is back after the All-Star game, a no-hit affair designed to emphasize the skill and flair of the best players, but which no one really likes because absent high stakes and the possibility of someone being levelled by a human missile, the skill and the flair are icing without cake.

The Pro Bowl is worse; so inconsequential that even ravenous NFL fans pay it no mind.

Real hockey means more hits like this one by the Edmonton Oilers Zack Stortini on Patric Hornqvist before the All-Star break, which would seem to be exhibit A for those arguing that players need to think before they attempt to decapitate an opponent whose sin is looking for the puck at their feet while otherwise standing harmlessly in the neutral zone.

Both the NFL and the NHL have a problem: their leagues are populated by players like Stortini and Harrison and many others who feel it is their role to not only to hit their opponents, but to punish them to full extent allowed by physics.

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But perhaps a bigger problem is that some fans (most; all?) like their favourite games played just that way: on the edge, with the possibility of mayhem lurking.

We can watch Alexander Ovechkin dangle his way through a team in the All-Star game and yawn; watching him do it when guys are lining him up to nail him is electric.

Watching quarterbacks lob touchdown passes in the Pro Bowl isn't worth moving your thumb on the remote; watching how the Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers will manage when Harrison blitzes early in the first quarter, eager to separate him from the ball, consequences be damned, makes for compelling theatre.

You wonder if it will always be this way, however.

What is driving the concern about head shots in hockey and football is the growing evidence that participating in activities where having your head violently snapped back and forth is dangerous to your long-term health.

Find a parent who isn't concerned about having their kids play lacrosse, hockey or football these days and you've found a parent whose head is so far in the sand it may never come out.

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In a provocative story in the New Yorker the question asked - Should football be banned? - could be applied to hockey as well, and the answers may come not from the leagues or the fans but from the courts; in the same way tobacco reforms were driven:

I know of two groups of lawyers preparing class-action suits, on behalf of recent players, against the N.F.L., with an eye toward filing in the first six months of this year. At issue is what the league knew and when, and, ultimately, what responsibility it has to its players, with a likely focus on the difference between two documents that were distributed in locker rooms as safety guidelines. The first, a pamphlet written in 2007, left open the question of whether "there are any long-term effects of concussion in N.F.L. athletes," while the second, a poster that was introduced before the start of this season, mentioned that "concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family's life forever." Trial lawyers, tort reform, the nanny state: this is no small part of football's future.

It could part of hockey's too; if not at the NHL level than at the minor hockey level. Like smoking, hockey is addictive. But if you know it's harmful to your health, what do you do about it?

Obviously the question becomes balancing the risk against the joys and the benefits -- an argument the tobacco companies could never make.

Regardless it's hard to ignore the notion that that there does need to be some kind shift in the attitudes of the players themselves on the ice or on the field. Easier said than done. Can you play football or hockey at the highest level if you remove the intent to devastate opponents with a check or a hit?

And if it was possible to play a knder, gentler brand of football or hockey, would we want to watch?

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