NASCAR learned. It took a painful lesson, but it learned.

It took losing its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 for NASCAR to finally get serious about driver safety.

Maybe the same thing is happening, or is about to happen, in football.

The game, on virtually every level, has never been more popular. If we needed more evidence of what a football-obsessed nation we are, coverage of the first round of the NFL draft drew better TV ratings than the NBA playoffs.

And yet football hasn’t been this much under siege since the early 1900s, when a rash of player deaths in college football was the impetus for safer rules and the creation of the NCAA.

Tuesday, Slate.com will sponsor a debate on whether college football should be banned. Noted sports columnist Jason Whitlock and former NFL player/author Tim Green will be speak in support of the game. Writer Malcolm Gladwell and none other than “Friday Night Lights” author Buzz Bissinger will argue for the sport’s abolishment.

Certainly this will prove to be a thought-provoking but materially meaningless exercise. If American corporations were deemed too big to fail after the fallout of the 2008 recession, the American corporation that is college football is too big to simply be dismissed. Too many people are making too much money from the sport, and so many of the rest of us love it too much.

Still, in a small way, the debate, like Junior Seau’s shocking suicide earlier this week, is an indication that football has crossed, if not the Rubicon, at least a major tributary in terms of player safety issues and their impact on our social consciousness.

No one knows yet if traumatic brain injuries prompted Seau to take his own life, but it would be the height of naivety to assume in 20 years in the NFL (plus years in high school and at USC) that Seau didn’t suffer a handful of concussions. He never was listed on an NFL injury report as having suffered one, but his ex-wife said he had several.

Those of us who have never played football at the college or pro level, even those of us who observe it every week, have difficulty comprehending how truly violent it is. But let former New Orleans Saint Kyle Turley’s words from a 2009 interview in The New Yorker (by the aforementioned Mr. Gladwell) give you a taste:

“I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays,” Turley said. “You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much.”

Where football goes from here is debatable. It isn’t going to disappear, but perhaps it needs to change in fundamental ways.

Certainly the NFL, faced with growing raft of lawsuits from former players, realizes this. It’s the real reason Commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down so hard on the Saints in the “Bountygate” case, not because he has it out for the franchise. The NFL literally can’t afford to look anything but proactive now.

How can football change? It’s difficult to say, as clearly we are closer to the start of this story than its end.

But football perhaps can take at least something from NASCAR’s response to the crash that killed Earnhart in 2001.

Almost as fast as drivers will sweep around Talladega Superspeedway in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, NASCAR implemented sweeping safety changes: soft-wall technology (SAFER barriers), head and neck restraints (HANS devices), mandatory full-face helmets.

Racing will never be completely safe — Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon’s death in a fiery IndyCar pileup at Las Vegas last October is grim testament to that. And one can make the argument NASCAR has been lucky.

But in the 11-plus years since Earnhardt was killed, there hasn’t been one on-track death in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Trucks.

Hopefully it will not take a death on the field in a college or pro game to shake football into further action.