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.