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It’s the mentality in football: Playing hurt. Playing in pain. Playing with a concussion. NFL star Emmitt Smith recently said that he did it. His peers did it. And others will continue to do it. It’s part of the sport.

But it’s that part that’s also taking parents who had been sitting on the fence about letting their sons play football from “maybe” to “hell, no.”

“You do it for the sake of the game,” the NFL Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboys star reportedly told an audience recently at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health Family, Football and Fame luncheon in San Angelo, Texas. “You do it for the sake of your teammates. You do it because it’s your team.”

His mindset was such that he once played in a game with a separated shoulder, simply ignoring the pain and continuing to take handoffs. Such bravado—machismo? stupidity?—is woven into the sport’s fabric. Staying on the field is more rule than exception.

“Should you be out there? The answer is probably not. Would I do it again? Yes, I would,” Smith said. “But that’s football. That’s the way I was raised. If you can’t play with pain, you can’t play the game.”

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A growing number of parents, and even NFL players, have begun to question that approach, which can lead to mangled limbs, frayed joints, broken necks and scrambled brains. From the men who recently decided that early retirement beats a pro career, to the former players suffering from head trauma and suing the NFL in a class action concussion lawsuit, to the prep and youth organizations facing litigation of their own, football has become a tackling dummy.

The trend began about six years ago when Congress grilled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the league’s concussion policies. It started to bear fruit in November 2013 when ESPN reported that Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw participation drop by nearly 10 percent. Head injuries were thought to be the No. 1 reason.

“Unless we deal with these truths, we’re not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport,” Dr. Juan Bailes, Pop Warner’s chief medical officer, told ESPN. “We need to get it right.”

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For some parents, their kids’ desire to play football is a lost cause. For others, it’s not a problem at all. Family members can be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

“My [15-year-old] son has played every year since he was 12,” said Deborah Crimes of Upper Marlboro, Md. “Even though he’s had a concussion, he still plays. That didn’t taint me. I know things happen with kids.

“But my sister won’t let her sons play,” Crimes continued. “They have played soccer, baseball and basketball, but she won’t allow football. The principal and football coach are trying to recruit my youngest nephew right now, and she’s not having it.”

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Some observers predict that football will slowly fade from its perch as the nation’s most popular sport—a title once held by horse racing—and go the way of boxing, left to rely primarily on socioeconomic bottom-feeders.

If so, we can’t see that juncture from here, not with 3,200 football scholarships available annually at the top level alone, and 32 NFL teams spending millions of dollars on new talent each year. Besides, the sport is simply a way of life for multiple generations that have played and still swear by it.

“To me, football has always been more of a character builder to turn young boys into men,” said James Chaney Jr., head coach at Lehigh High School outside Fort Myers, Fla. He earned a scholarship to Florida State in 1988, and his father earned a scholarship to Virginia State in 1963. No one will be surprised if one or both of Chaney’s young sons—who have played since they were 7—continue the trend.

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“I tell parents to at least let their kid give it a try,” Chaney said. “There now are big-time programs teaching proper tackling to coaches and kids. I think the safety movement has caught on real strong, and football is safer than two to three years ago.”

No matter how much the equipment changes or the rules are tweaked, there will always be an element of risk in a game of intentional collisions at high speed.

No matter how much the equipment changes or the rules are tweaked, there will always be an element of risk in a game of intentional collisions at high speed. Then again, athletes in other sports can suffer concussions, too.

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Golden State’s handling of Klay Thompson in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals brought the NBA policy under scrutiny. And you wouldn’t know it based on media reports, but girls reportedly suffer sports concussions at a higher rate than boys.

That’s one reason football advocates believe that the sport gets a bum rap. Ed Riley, a physician and medical researcher at Stanford University, understands the concerns and fears but urges parents to ignore them, letting the boys be boys and play. “The key here is that high school is not the NFL,” Riley wrote in a guest column. “The Mayo Clinic found that the risk of high school football players developing degenerative neurological diseases later in life is no greater than if they had been in the band, glee club or choir.”

Of course, none of those groups encourages knocking your peer’s block off or performing with a separated shoulder.

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Guess that’s what makes football special.