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Bill Littlefield: As long as players are celebrated for “crushing tackles” and fans cast votes for “best hit ever” -- no amount of helmet technology can protect against head injuries. (Seth Perlman/AP)

Monday’s game between Notre Dame and Alabama to determine the national college champion is perhaps football’s biggest current story, but a couple of contenders for spots down the list also deserve mention.

Fierce, unyielding, and downright nasty … These are football virtues.

Ray Lewis, once notorious for pleading guilty to obstruction of justice during the investigation of two murders in which he’d initially been a suspect, announced his retirement last week. “God is calling,” Lewis said, by which he meant that after he’d played in the NFL for 17 seasons, God wanted Lewis to spend some time watching his sons play football and sign a multi-year contract with ESPN.

In one story about his career, Lewis, who has been the leader on his Baltimore Ravens team despite injuries, was celebrated not only for his “crushing tackles,” but for leading a defense that had a “reputation for being fierce, unyielding, and downright nasty.”

These are football virtues.

The second story concerns not a career but a single play. During last week’s Outback Bowl, in which South Carolina defeated Michigan, Jadeveon Clowney hit Michigan running back Vincent Smith so suddenly, so hard, and with such an exceptionally unimpeded running start that Smith’s helmet flew off his head as he was driven backward and buried.

Film of the dramatic hit inspired ESPN to initiate a poll in which visitors to their website were asked if Jadeveon Clowney’s hit was “the best ever?” Knowledgeable people say Clowney will go high in the NFL draft when his time comes.

Against this background, the NFL is trying to figure out how to defend itself from the thousands of former players who are suing the league for concealing from them the extent to which they were risking their brains on the job.

The NFL would like us to believe that by monitoring players for concussions, instituting new protocols for the treatment of head injuries, and tinkering with helmet designs, they can address worker safety.

But football is a game in which “crushing tackles” are celebrated. It’s a game in which a hit that separates a player from the piece of equipment designed to protect his head instantly becomes a candidate for “best hit ever.”

People aren’t going to stop watching football. But as long as they’re voting for “best hits,” fans shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the doctor on the sideline and the innovative helmet technology will much change the game they’ve chosen to relish.

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