As the NFL opens its season Thursday night, the league faces myriad challenges. A growing body of science connects playing football to dire brain-related health risks. Ratings sagged last season. Quality of play has been scrutinized. Another high-profile player finds himself enmeshed in a domestic-abuse scandal. Some fans are upset about players protesting during the national anthem, and others are angry Colin Kaepernick does not have a job.
Despite those issues and other apparent threats to the league's health, Americans' zeal for football has shown no sign of abating. Professional football remains the most followed sport in America by a wide margin, and its massive popularity has not waned in recent years, according to a nationwide poll conducted in August by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Six in 10 Americans say they are fans of professional football, roughly similar to polls in 2012 and up from 50 percent in a 2008 Post poll. Fandom for professional football far outpaces professional baseball at 45 percent of Americans and professional basketball at 39 percent. Asked which sport is their favorite to watch, 37 percent say football, little changed from 35 percent in a 2012 Post poll and more than triple the percentage who pick baseball or basketball.
Football's dangers and drawbacks have not turned away younger fans poised to become the NFL's core fan base. Among Americans between ages 18 and 29, 61 percent say they are football fans, roughly the same as the public overall. Furthermore, adults under age 30 are the most likely demographic to say their interest in football has increased, at 41 percent.
Poll results indicated professional football fans recognize the danger the sport poses to its players but have chosen to watch anyway. In July, neuropathologist Anne McKee published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which 110 of 111 brains of former football players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with hits to the head. While the study was limited to brains donated by players' family members, the results built on an already large body of science connecting football to long-term brain damage.
Americans believe the science by overwhelming majority: 83 percent believe it is either certainly true (45 percent) or probably true that playing football causes brain injuries. Among sports fans, 90 percent say head injuries causing long-term health problems for players is a problem for professional football. Fully 76 percent say it is a major problem, the highest level of concern among nine problems tested in the Post-UMass Lowell poll.
But the acknowledgment of problems has not prevented Americans from watching. Among those who say head injuries are a major problem, 74 percent identify themselves as football fans, 40 percent called themselves "big football fans," and 44 percent say football is their favorite sport to watch.
Toni Hendershot, a 70-year-old from Montana, said she and her family prohibited her grandson from playing football after watching the movie "Concussion," a film based on the true story of a doctor's struggle to get the NFL to recognize the threat of CTE. Hendershot still watches two or three NFL games a week, reconciling the health risks players accept because of the financial incentive.
"What I struggle with is the fact that they are adult men and they should be making good choices for their long-term health," Hendershot said. "But since it is their long-term health, I shouldn't be expected to pay for it. I don't have a problem watching it if they are dumb enough to make those choices for the big bucks."
While football has retained its popularity, at least some Americans are turning away. More than 1 in 5, 23 percent, say their interest in professional football has decreased in recent years, up from 13 percent in 2012. When asked an open-ended question about why their interest had decreased, 24 percent cite politics, including 17 percent naming the national anthem protests that Kaepernick initiated last preseason. Some 10 percent of those with decreased interest say there are too many penalties or delays. Just 7 percent cite injuries.
The poll finds 45 percent of Americans say the NFL is doing "too little" to prevent concussions and head injuries among players while 40 percent say they are doing the right amount. That marks a shift from 2011, when an Associated Press survey found 57 percent saying the NFL is doing the right amount.
Concerns about head injuries rank as the biggest problem tested in the survey, but the Post-UMass Lowell poll also finds roughly 6 in 10 sports fans say violent crime and domestic violence committed by players are major problems for the sport. Among lesser concerns, 40 percent say players being paid too much is a major problem, followed by 36 percent who say the same about players speaking out about politics and about 2 in 10 who say low quality of play or the number of penalties during games are major problems.
Television ratings dipped last season, dropping 9 percent in the regular season and 6 percent in the playoffs. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus pointed to several factors that suggest the decrease was temporary.
The biggest reason NFL ratings dropped, McManus said, was the attention viewers paid to the presidential election instead. He also cited the absence of Peyton Manning (retirement), Tom Brady (four-game suspension) and J.J. Watt (injury); the appeal of the Chicago Cubs' World Series run; and a string of non-competitive prime-time games.
"I think those are all factors that contribute to it," McManus said. "Listen, I think the ratings will come back. You've got to look at this relatively speaking: The NFL ratings are still, far and away, the most attractive programming in all of television by a huge margin. So the fact that ratings were down marginally are still of concern. We'd rather be up than down, but nobody is panicking and saying the NFL is slipping in terms of its popularity or in terms of its dominance, relatively speaking to what else is on in television."
The Post-UMass Lowell poll was conducted Aug. 14-21 among a random national sample of 1,000 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points and is 4.7 points among the sample of 598 football fans.
Demographic breakdowns of Americans' responses revealed several striking results. While 14 percent of football fans from the South say their interest in professional football has decreased in recent years, this rises to 26 percent in the West.
Nearly a quarter of suburban football fans (24 percent) say their interest in pro football decreased, compared with 12 percent of urban fans.
Among non-white pro football fans, 29 percent say their interest has increased, while 11 percent say it has decreased. Conversely, 17 percent of white football fans say their interest has increased, while a similar 22 percent say it has decreased.
Overall, Americans cited rooting for their favorite team, socializing with friends and "the action of the game" as their biggest reasons for watching. Far fewer cite hard hits and tackling or keeping up with their fantasy football team.
"Look, you got mothers worrying about kids," said former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, now an analyst for Showtime's "Inside the NFL." "You worry about that. You got to think about it like this: I guarantee across the [country], in every state, there's these babies waking up every day. You know what their dream is? 'Man, I get to play football this Saturday. I get to go to football practice.' That passion they display is something we will never get by."
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.