The long-term effects of head injuries among football players has been the topic of growing concern in recent years, including whether Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a devastating and deadly brain disease– occurs more often among football players. In July, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a recent study of brains donated for research diagnosed CTE in 99 percent of those of 111 former NFL players.
“Three-quarters of fans say head injuries in football are a major problem and another six in 10 are worried about off-field violence involving players. Despite that, football remains America’s favorite professional sport,” according to a press release that summarized the results of a UMass Lowell-Washington Post Poll that was released this past September.
While many people are concerned and even believe that the science is settled that the game is damaging and dangerous, there are powerful forces that are pushing the continued popularity of the sport, and we have not yet hit that breaking point.
GMP Sports spoke to Prof. Joshua Dyck, co-director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion, who worked on the poll, to glean further insights into the issue. He and his colleagues did this poll to try and understand what was going on with football fans, because “we are starting to become more and more aware that this game is really really dangerous and has some potentially huge lifelong implications for the people who play it and the families who end up caring for them, but at the same time we are connected to football as this social and cultural experience, which puts us in a very uncomfortable place right now…What is the breaking point? And what we found in the survey is that we haven’t hit it yet.”
First, a few data points and takeaways from the Poll:
- “The survey of 1,000 Americans finds 77 percent of those who consider themselves professional football fans said that head injuries causing long-term health issues for players are a major problem, compared with only 15 percent who said it is a minor problem and 6 percent who do not consider it a problem.”
- “An overwhelming majority of Americans polled believe that there is settled science that playing football causes brain injuries, with a total of 83 percent who say that is either certainly (45 percent) or probably (37 percent true). Only one in 10 say that is probably false (7 percent) or certainly false (3 percent). A majority also said that it is certainly true (52 percent) that CTE is a serious public health issue and another 28 percent said it is probably true. Only one in 10 said it is probably (7 percent) or certainly (3 percent) false.”
- “The poll also found that sports fans see other issues with football, including domestic violence (61 percent) and violence in general (60 percent) committed by players as major problems.”
- “Despite this, 60 percent of Americans say they are fans of professional football, with 31 percent identifying themselves as “big fans,” the poll found. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association were the second-most popular among professional sports at 45 percent and 39 percent, respectively, followed by boxing (28 percent); mixed martial arts (25 percent); auto racing and soccer (both at 24 percent); ice hockey (22 percent); and WWE wrestling (14 percent).”
- Despite the serious controversies facing pro football in the last few years, there has been little impact on its popularity, as just as many Americans are fans today as in 2012, according to this Poll. Specifically, “the UMass Lowell-Washington Post poll found that interest in the sport increased over the last few years among 23 percent of football fans and decreased among 19 percent. Twenty-five percent of female fans said their interest has increased, compared to 12 percent who reported a decrease. Among male fans, 25 percent reported a decrease in interest and 21 percent said it increased. Interest grew 34 percent among fans who are ages 18 to 39 while interest showed a small net decrease among fans age 40 and older.”
- Notably, “the most common reason that fans reported for a decrease in interest in the NFL in recent years was not concussions or violence, but political issues. Of those who identified that reason, 17 percent pointed to protests during the national anthem by players such as Colin Kaepernick. Ten percent cited too many penalties and game delays or a decline in their interest in sports in general and 8 percent said they are too busy. Only 7 percent cited too many injuries or too much violence in the game.”
- “The major reasons fans say they watch pro football point to the geographic, social and familial ties that bond them: 71 percent cited rooting for a favorite team and 53 percent cited enjoying time with friends and family. The game’s action also scored high among football fans, with 68 percent saying it is a major reason they watch, but the hard-hitting nature of the game was a major reason to watch among only 26 percent.”
Commenting on the poll, Dr. Dyck noted that “There is a growing ambivalence among pro football fans that puts their love of the game in conflict with their views on concussions and head injuries. The survey indicates that football fans are very concerned about the problems related to concussions and half think the league has not done enough to address the issue. However, there is no evidence in this survey that NFL fans have started voting with their feet and remote controls by turning away and tuning out.”
“One of the more interesting findings in the survey is that many of the reasons Americans are drawn to football are not because of hard hits, but rather for social reasons – rooting for a specific team, and spending time with friends and family. The experience of watching football transcends the game itself and is deeply ingrained as a part of American culture,” said Dyck.
Indeed, what makes change so hard – even in the face of our knowledge of how dangerous the sport is – is the social and cultural experience of football. Those polled did not focus on ‘big hits’ as a reason of why they watch the game; people watch because that is how they spend time with family or friends or because of their rooting interest. These bounds are hard to break and make people more willing to accept changes to football to make it “more safe,” rather than abandon football completely. True change will require a huge social and cultural shift.
We also asked Dyck about the battle going on in terms of “the science” – where we have witnessed political and monied interests sowing doubt as to the science behind CTE and its relationship to tackle football. Interestingly, his study found that despite all of this, most Americans believe that the science is settled.
Dyck, who is himself a political scientist, raised the question of where we go from here:
“Does this becomes a political issue like climate change, or does this become an issue where science and popular opinion overtakes everything, like smoking?”
That remains an open question. “I don’t know where we are going to be in 20 years, but I do know the issues aren’t going away,” said Dyck.
One obvious next question for Dr. Dyck is to take a hard look at youth football. How do we feel about football in connection with parenting? A more recent Poll at Umass Lowell focused specifically on youth football and concluded that a majority of Americans feel that tackle football is unsafe for young kids.
Some of the highlights of that study are:
- “Fifty-three percent of adults surveyed feel that tackle football is not a safe activity for kids before they are in high school; 41 percent feel it is safe before high school.”
- “Despite their opposition to tackle football before high school, a 57 percent majority of Americans believe that high school football is a safe activity.”
- “Among those polled who said that it is true that playing football causes brain injuries, 44 percent said it is okay for children 13 or younger to play football. Among those who did not agree that playing football causes brain injuries, 54 percent said it is okay for children age 13 and younger to play football.”
“As Americans become more aware of the long-term effects of head injuries and concussions in sports, their preferences about youth football reflect a public divided about whether the game continues to be a safe activity for children,” said Prof. Joshua Dyck, co-director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion. “The data also shows that fans of football and other sports are still largely supportive of children ages 10 and up participating in tackle football, but these views are not shared broadly across the American public.”
Looking back at both studies, Dr. Dyck wonders if there will be a point in time when people can perhaps rationalize watching pro football – because of the money they are being paid, the personal choice the athletes are making, or some of the safety measures they are taking – but still not want their own kids to play this game.
According to these polling results, we are not yet there. It remains unclear how and whether the paradox of knowing how harmful football is and yet loving football will be resolved.
Credit: Associated Press