It's never too early to think about football season and to speculate whether the NFL will ever resemble that episode of "The Jetsons" where the players are programmable robots.

Personally, I think professional football - with real people - will continue to exist for our grandchildren's children, and they'll still be able to wonder when the Vikings will finally win that elusive Super Bowl.

Seriously, though, as popular as the NFL is with American football fans, it would take an act of Congress (no, scratch that, the Supreme Court) to take it away from us. The Romans had their gladiators and lions, and America will always have its NFL so long as there are beer and car commercials to make and apparel to buy.

We are all concerned about concussions (or at least we should be) and it behooves officials at all football levels to adjust the rules to minimize injuries (putting flags on quarterbacks is the next rule change, I hear), but you don't just toss America's favorite sport onto the trash heap.

While I pondered this the other day while gazing at my wide-screen TV (the one that makes the NFL experience so much better than actually being there in person to have someone spill beer on you and yell obscenities in your left ear), I considered the future of football on other levels. That is, the youth levels. The high school levels, for instance. Twenty years from now, will there be enough quality professional players for me to throw my remote at if fewer athletes-in-the-making are attempting to play it during their teen years?

Many of us recall, some of us winced, when we heard two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner tell a TV audience last year that he doesn't want his sons to play football. He was criticized for that. But soon afterward, Pro Bowler Drew Brees said he wasn't so sold on his sons playing football either.

After talking recently with two area football coaches -first with a college coach, Minnesota West's Jeff Linder, and then with Luverne High School coach Todd Oye -I've come away with a deepened perspective, and a few new thoughts.

With respect to Warner, Oye pointed out that the differences between NFL football and the kind of football seen at the high school level are extreme. The speed and the violence in the NFL just isn't comparable to what we're used to seeing on Friday nights.

Of course, there's gotta be a lot of parents out there who question the wisdom of putting their kids out on a football field, with all the talk about concussions and what not. Linder says he's hearing more from players, themselves, during his recruiting efforts, that they're concerned about a concussion they may have had in high school. That's a good thing, he maintains.

Overall, however, Linder says, "I personally have not talked to a parent who's said they don't want their kid to play because they've had a concussion in high school."

What's changed in football, says Linder, is that coaching staffs are infinitely more aware of the dangers, and whereas they might have erred on the other side of caution in the past, they certainly do not make the same mistakes now. Linder says he's very fortunate to have an expert athletic trainer like Joel Krekelberg on his West staff, but he offers a blanket statement in support of all coaching staffs in general.

"Today's coach would never put a child in jeopardy," he said.

If football numbers go down, it will probably affect the high school ranks more acutely than the college ranks. But Oye, who says he welcomes the greater stress on safety, says Luverne's numbers are OK.

"I would say the numbers right now are the same. But we've always had mothers concerned that they don't want their son to play football because of injury concerns," he said.

But Oye left me with something else - something I hadn't really thought about before, but something well worth thinking about.

Auto racing. Isn't it interesting that with all the criticism that football has taken for its risk of injury, there doesn't seem to be a comparable concern about the sport of racing. There have been some highly publicized injuries in auto racing in recent years -even deaths -but while some are calling for football to be banned, we're not hearing that kind of talk about racing.

My prediction is that we'll always have racing. And football. In both sports, and in others, rules (as well as technology) ought to be tinkered with to ensure greater safety.

But I don't see any robots on the gridiron or on the racetrack, either. Maybe they'll use them someday in the pits at Indy, or maybe they'll come up with a robot to improve on the inane blather that comes from NFL broadcast booths, but that's about it.