NFL begins new season unscathed from offseason turmoil

September 4, 2012

The National Football League has faced unwanted scrutiny over the past seven months, ranging from lawsuits from former players over head injuries to a scandal exposing one team’s secret reward program for hard hits on opponents. But as the league opens its regular season Wednesday night, a new Washington Post poll suggests that football remains by far the country’s most popular sport and that the game’s inherent violence is as much of an appeal as it is a liability.

Even as many media critics have suggested the threat of injuries may impair the game’s long-term health, 44 percent of fans in the new poll say their interest in pro football is on the rise, while 32 percent report a drop-off. More than one in three of Americans polled said football is their favorite to watch — nearly three times as popular as baseball, which finished second in the poll.

While nearly six in 10 Americans say they’re concerned about the number of injuries in professional football, a tepid 20 percent are “very concerned,” with just as many expressing no concern at all.

“You keep hearing about all the damage it’s doing to players. It’s just a tough call because it’s so fun to watch,” said Josh Simon, a 29-year-old Alabama transplant who roots for the Washington Redskins. “I don’t think it’s really possible to imagine that everyone would collectively stop watching football on Sundays.”

Said longtime broadcaster Al Michaels: “Football is king right now. It’s hotter than any sport has ever been at any time in this country.”

Since February’s Super Bowl, though, the league has been in the headlines for reasons having nothing to do with games. In recent months, more than 3,000 former players have joined dozens of lawsuits against the league, charging the NFL with years of negligence in its handling of concussions.

In March, the NFL revealed the New Orleans Saints had participated in a bounty program in which players were rewarded for violent hits on the field, prompting critics and pundits alike to question whether the sport’s zeitgeist had reached a tipping point and whether fans’ collective tolerance level had been breached.

And in May, former linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, and though no evidence has linked the popular player’s death to head injuries, it prompted a new round of scrutiny that bore to the game’s very essence: Namely, could the violence that has made the sport so popular ultimately lead to its downfall? Last week alone, ESPN presented a five-day examination entitled “Football at a Crossroads,” on its signature programs “Outside the Lines” and “SportsCenter,” plus ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

But fan sentiment hasn’t always followed the media speculation.

“I’d be stunned if it makes any impact at all,” Cris Collinsworth, a former player and current analyst for NBC, said of the offseason headlines. “If anything, it sort of kept the spotlight on the NFL throughout the course of the offseason.”

Television ratings for the August preseason games were down from a year ago on ESPN, FOX, CBS and NBC, but it’s tougher to make a correlation between news headlines and the sport’s future. While a June survey by The Post found nearly nine in 10 fans saying reports about head injuries would not make much difference in their plans to watch games this fall, the new poll reveals a more complicated truth: The number of fans who revel in hard hits is about the same as the number who detest them.

Thirty-five percent of fans say they would like football more if there were fewer hard hits, but 39 percent said they would like it less. More than four in 10 Americans who call themselves “big” football fans say a drop in big hits would make them enjoy the sport less, rising to 54 percent of those who grew up playing football.

Asked what it would take for him to pass on watching the NFL, District resident David Lasday, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who likened football players to “modern-day gladiators,” laughed and said, “A more violent sport, something else to watch.”

Fans divide sharply along gender lines on the violence issue, with nearly twice as many men as women saying they would like pro football less with fewer collisions.

From upgrading equipment to significant rules changes, the league has undertaken several measures in recent years in hopes of making the game safer. While the intent is aimed at protecting the players on the field, the sport’s brain trust knows it must preserve both the character and integrity of the sport for fans.

“I don’t believe the game is getting more and more violent. I just think awareness of injuries like concussions that can have permanent damage, is well scrutinized right now,” said Jon Gruden, a former Super Bowl-winning coach and now an analyst for ESPN, “and for good reason.”

Several former NFL players are among those who’ve expressed concern for the sport’s future, many drawing a parallel with professional boxing, a popular sport throughout the 20th century that has seen its interest wane and credibility undercut by disorganization and inherent brutality.

Even as training camps and preseason games came to overshadow off-the-field events in recent weeks, the NFL will still begin its season under a cloud of sorts. The league has locked out its referees and will use replacement crews until the league and the union representing game officials can reach a new labor agreement. Wednesday night’s season opener features the Dallas Cowboys against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The rest of the NFL teams begin play Sunday and Monday, including the Redskins, who open with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III at New Orleans on Sunday.

Tony Dungy, a former Super Bowl-winning coach, says Americans’ favorite game is hardly unassailable, but the recent succession of offseason events isn’t near enough to challenge its standing on the American landscape.

“Every place I go traveling around people are: ‘When are you going to start? Can’t wait for football to get back,’ ” Dungy said. “Sure, there’s interest and people are concerned about the bountygate, they’re concerned about replacement officials, but they’re going to tune in. They want to see how it’s going to impact. . . . The interest is as high as I can ever remember it.”

District resident Jammal Watkins said players aren’t forced into their pads and helmets.

“They’re getting paid a lot of money — a lot,” said Watkins, a 43-year-old Cowboys fan. “So if they want to do it and take those risks, I’m gonna watch it.”

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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