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.