NEW ORLEANS -- At one point during Super Bowl media day, Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda glanced around at the horde of reporters with a look of exasperation and wondered aloud if anybody wanted to ask him about the game.
"The most commonly asked question here is how safe is football," Yanda said. "I definitely didn't expect that."
Players from both the 49ers and Ravens grew weary of answering the endless inquiries about the future of the game and if they thought their profession was damaging their brains. But the primary storyline to Super Bowl week -- just like all season -- was player safety as the league grapples with a mounting crisis over concussions and their long-term effects.
More than 4,000 former players are suing the league. The suicide last May of retired star Junior Seau and the subsequent revelation that he was suffering from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with blows to the head, continues to rock the league.
President Obama even added his voice to the discussion with comments to The New Republic that if he had a son, he would have to "think long and hard" before allowing him to play.
"I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence," the president added. "In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot
NFL officials, after years of denying a link between football and brain damage, used this week to voice their support for increased research and highlight improvements made in concussion management. The league also unveiled its intent to have independent neurological experts on every team's sideline next season to provide an extra level of care when players are suspected to have suffered concussions.
"There is better recognition of head injuries, of treating them conservatively, and that affects every sport (and) to your children playing in the playground, to our troops overseas," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday. ". . . I believe that the changes that we're making to our game will make football better. It will make it safer. It will make other sports safer."
Goodell added that he was "glad" 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who lost his starting job this season after sustaining a concussion, did not try to hide his injury. Smith's situation has led many to ask if players will be less likely to disclose their own concussion symptoms.
It's a complicated problem that has led to a growing sense that football is at a crossroads. That's why players and coaches were peppered with questions about the game's toll and if they would let their own kids play. Jim Harbaugh had a quick response.
"Well, I have a 4-month-old son, Jack Harbaugh, and if President Obama feels that way, then (there will) be a little less competition for Jack Harbaugh when he gets older," the 49ers coach said. "That's the first thing that jumps into my mind, if other parents are thinking that way."
But Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said he didn't even think football would exist in 30 years because of rule changes being made to make the game safer. He also said he feared that there some day there will be a death on the field.
Sunday, though, the talking finally stops. The focus solely will be on football and fans once again will revel in the big hits that help make football America's most popular sport, and one of its most dangerous.