Television ratings are up and merchandise sales are booming, but longer-term trends don’t look as rosy for football. According to a new Bloomberg Politics poll, 50 percent of Americans say they wouldn't want their son to play the sport and only 17 percent believe it’ll grow in popularity in the next 20 years.
These are grim numbers for a sport that’s seeing an onslaught of negative attention, including a parade of National Football League players accused of abusing their wives or children; a team name so offensive that some news organizations refuse to print it; and, perhaps most troubling to parents, the growing body of evidence that repeated blows to the head can cause long-lasting brain damage. The sport’s troubles have caught the attention of Congress, whose members hauled a league official to Washington for a Senate hearing earlier this month. Individual lawmakers have proposed ending the league’s tax-exempt status and putting its coveted anti-trust exception up for a five year review.
The finding suggest that, over the course of time, football could go the way of boxing, a marquee American sport in the early part of the 20th century that declined amid a similar set of dynamics: changing perceptions of its brutality and star athletes making headlines for violent crimes.
The Bloomberg survey, conducted from Dec. 3-5 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, shows that elites are particularly bearish on the sport’s future. Almost a third of those who make $100,000 or more a year say football will lose followers over the next two decades. More than a quarter of college-educated respondents agree. The same wealthy and college-educated folks are the most likely groups to want to keep their children off the gridiron. Sixty-two percent of college-educated respondents said they don’t want their children playing the sport and 62 percent of those making $100,000 or more a year agree.
“I just think it has become too dangerous,” said Vince Vlasuk, 38, a consultant in Strongsville, Ohio, who is pushing his young boys to play soccer instead. “I don’t think they have the equipment they need to protect themselves, particularly at the junior high and high school level.”
A spate of football related high school deaths made headlines over the past few weeks including young players dying after game day injuries in New York and Alabama. Across the country games have been canceled and seasons curtailed due to a surfeit of injuries and a declining number of young players.
The poll also showed a generational divide, with 56 percent of those under age 35 saying they'd want their son to play. That's the highest of any demographic group and almost twice the percentage, 29 percent, of those 65 and older. Democrats were slightly more likely to oppose their children participating in the game than Republicans, 52 percent to 47. Even though the National Football League has courted women as viewers, 58 percent of female respondents say they don’t want their boys playing football compared with 41 percent of men.
Another bright spot for the sport among the under-35 set: They are almost twice as likely as older respondents to believe the sport will grow in popularity over the next twenty years. And there’s still the 43 percent of respondents who say they want their kids to play the game, including Tim Sacre, 58, of Tooele, Utah. The retired miner is raising two grandchildren. “It’s a popular sport,” he said. “It’s fun for them.” Safety, he said, is a “concern," but his young charges participate in another hair-raising activity. “One races motorcycles too, so football is nothing,” he said.
The poll of 1,001 U.S. adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.