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Borland situation highlights delicate balance NFL must strike

2011 NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23: An NFL logo shield is painted on the field during the game between the Green Bay Packers against the Chicago Bears in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Packers defeated the Bears 21-14. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

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The concussion crisis forced the NFL to acknowledge the problem and take meaningful steps to address it in 2009, primarily for legal and political reasons. Now that everyone knows that playing football can result in long-term cognitive problems and diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS, the league faces no real liability for failing to warn players about the risks of concussions.

But that doesn’t mean the NFL’s work on the problem has ended. Apart from efforts to ensure that players with concussions don’t return to practice or games without being cleared by an independent neurologist and to protect specifically vulnerable players from blows to the head, the NFL needs to strive for ways to limit or to remove certain blows to the head from the game.

Hall of Famer John Madden suggested several years ago the replacement of the three-point stance with a two-point stance. Madden, who scoffed last year at the NFL’s Head’s Up program, surely has other ideas for making the game even safer.

So how far will the NFL go to make the game safer? How safe can it be? Will the NFL risk making changes that affect the fundamental nature or (perhaps more importantly) appearance of football games on a 60-inch flatscreen?

From a business standpoint, the NFL needs to balance the risk of losing players and alienating those who regard football in its current form as barbaric against the risk of alienating football fans who fear that the game will become less enjoyable if it’s made so safe that the game suffers. It’s possible that nothing short of removing pads and helmets and making the game into an old-timer’s game of flag football will turn off football fans. Sure, they’ll huff and puff -- but will they blow the house down by doing something else with their time and money on Sunday afternoons?

If the NFL goes too far to make the game as safe as it can be, someone inevitably will form a football league that plays old-school, big-hitting football, employing players who know the risks and gladly embrace them. In our society, plenty of risks are taken for much less money, or for no money at all. If enough people are willing to play a violent brand of football and enough people are willing to patronize it, the most intense forms of football will thrive, possibly as competition to the NFL.

The NFL needs to constantly ask where it sees itself in the spectrum that has no-contact at one end and full-contact at the other. Over the past six years, the game has evolved to something with less contact. Whether the NFL can afford to remove more contact -- and whether it can afford not to -- becomes one of the most important questions for a league that has been far more reactive than proactive on matters that directly affect its long-term success.