In their fantastic new book "League of Denial," Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru quote Joe Maroon, a neurological consultant for the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers, saying, "if only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as dangerous, that is the end of football."
Perhaps, then, the end is nigh, as a new HBO Real Sports/Marist poll shows that 33 percent of Americans "say the link between head injuries in football and long-term brain trauma would make them less likely to allow their son to play football if they had to make that choice." Thirteen percent, clearing the 10 percent threshold Maroon laid out, say they wouldn't let their son play, period.
"Historically, youth football has fueled the NFL," said Dr. Keith Strudler, Director of The Marist College Center for Sports Communication. "Parents' concern about the safety of the game could jeopardize the future of the sport." Even Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson says, "Knowing what I know now, if I had to do it all over again, I would not, because it's really not worth it."
Now, 85 percent of Americans would still let their son play, so saying that football is on its deathbed is obviously very premature. The sport is still the most popular in America: millions of people tuned into this week's putrid Monday Night Football matchup between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, who had combined for one win in 10 games. It's actually expected that Americans will choose to watch regular season NFL games over the World Series, the championship of the country's supposed national pastime.
But more and more information is coming out regarding the real brain damage that occurs from playing football, and with so many other sports available to American youth, asking whether football can survive years of this sort of bad press is legitimate. (The National Basketball Association is even bragging about its growing popularity at the high school level, and soccer is not going away anytime soon.)
In their book, Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru liken the NFL to Big Tobacco – claiming that it covered up evidence of how dangerous the sport is and circulated bogus research regarding the damage done by concussions. Well, a record low percentage of Americans now smoke, and the most effective way to get them to put away the cigarettes is not through education about the health effects of smoking, but via making them dislike the tobacco industry. Smoking, once ubiquitous in American society, is now something done only by a distinct and shrinking minority. Is the NFL headed in the same direction?
The NFL, of course, is trying to spin the Marist poll as indicating that the league and its game are just fine. And it's hard to argue with the league's popularity. But as the concussions pile up – and they already have this season, in particular – and more research comes to light, as more of the game's former stars question whether the beating they took was worth it, the sport will face an existential crisis and it's far from clear that anyone in the league's leadership knows what to do about it, other than throwing money at the problem and hoping it goes away.