But what about Will's claims that "linemen" who play more than five years have a life expectancy "much less" than 60 and that there are "high early mortality rates among linemen resulting from cardiovascular disease"?
The NIOSH study divided the NFL players into three rough categories: 1) punters, kickers, quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs, 2) halfbacks, fullbacks, linebackers, offensive ends and tight ends, and 3) offensive and defensive linemen. It discovered that all three categories -- including offensive and defensive linemen -- had overall mortality rates lower than the general population.
What the study did find is that defensive linemen -- but not offensive linemen -- had a higher mortality rate from cardiovascular disease in particular than their peers in the general population. This held true even when the data were controlled for body mass index and ethnicity, factors that correlate in the population with a higher mortality rate from cardiovascular disease.
In his column, Will pointed to three former NFL players -- Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau -- who committed suicide in the past two years. Brain tissue from Easterling and Duerson, Will notes, showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Seau's brain tissue is being studied. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says CTE is caused "by repetitive blows to the head over a long period of time."
The NIOSH study indicated that NFL alumni are less likely to commit suicide than others. Whereas 21.8 men would have killed themselves in the general population, only nine NFL veterans did.
But the question about brain injury among NFL players is a serious one. In the NIOSH study, 12 of 3,439 players died of diseases of the nervous system and sense organs. Only 9.7 men in the general population would have died of these causes. NIOSH soon will complete a study examining in greater detail the mortality in this small group of former NFL players.
"Now, however," Will wrote, "accumulating evidence about new understandings of the human body -- the brain, especially, but not exclusively -- compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected by equipment to absorb, the game's kinetic energies."
On ABC's "This Week," he said this was true "even further down to high school."
Will referred to football fans as "a tribe not known for savoring nuance." But Will's own column needed more of it.
Football provides its greatest service not to those who watch it but to those who play. The vast majority of football players are not professionals but amateurs -- including the 1,108,441 high-school boys who, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, played in 2010 alone.
The rules can and should protect high-school boys from unreasonable risk of injury. But no scholastic activity could ever replace what they learn about hard work, perseverance, teamwork and courage from playing America's greatest game.