The concussions, violent hits seen on TV, lawsuits over health, and suicides among football players have taken their toll on parents, who see a connection between what's happening in the pros and the risks their children face on the field down the street, an "Outside the Lines" survey finds.
About 57 percent of parents in an online public opinion survey of more than 1,000 people conducted by ESPN Research and the Global Strategy Group in early August said that recent stories about the increase in concussions in football have made them less likely to allow their sons to play in youth leagues.
The survey asked several questions about people's perception of injuries, specifically concussions, in the NFL, and how those opinions trickled down through all levels of the sport. Special emphasis was given to parents of boys younger than 15. About two-thirds of parents said concussions are a serious issue in youth football.
A native Texan, Shane Alexander grew up in a household so passionate about football that his family rescinded its love of the Dallas Cowboys the day Tom Landry was fired in favor of other teams. From 1999 through 2001, Alexander had season tickets for Texas Longhorns games, where he cheered alongside 80,000 fans at Texas Memorial Stadium. In the past few years, he's rooted for Baylor, which he and his wife, Kara, watched win the Alamo Bowl last year in San Antonio.
And on Sunday afternoons -- after long mornings preparing and preaching at his church in Mexia, Texas, about 90 minutes south of Dallas -- Alexander plops down on his couch and watches NFL games, mostly of the Cowboys or Houston Texans, that he'd DVR'd earlier in the day.
Despite his passion for football, he has no plans to let his two sons play the game.
"I can't keep my boys or any of my kids safe from everything. But there's just certain things that I think are obvious ones to stay away from, and increasingly, I think football is one of those things," said the 35-year-old pastor.
Alexander wasn't one of the survey respondents, but he had similar concerns as many of the respondents. His sons -- 1-year-old Levi and 4-year-old Peyton (which everyone assumes is a nod to the famous quarterback, but it's really just a family name) -- are too young to be thinking about football yet. The young dad is OK with them playing other sports, just not football. He fears any type of injury, but he said concussions are particularly scary because the effect isn't immediately obvious and could evolve into permanent brain damage.
"In football, you're basically playing a game where people are trying to hurt you," he said. Even though that's been the case for decades, recent events -- from the news about concussions and possible links to player suicides to the New Orleans Saints' controversy over "bounty" payments for hard hits -- have solidified Alexander's stance. He's also influenced by his wife's uncle, who was an offensive lineman in the NFL in the early 1970s. Today, "he can't even hardly walk," Alexander said.
Parents in the survey made similar statements. A mom from Maryland said: "I'm afraid of the injuries. I don't want my son to become too aggressive." A dad from New Mexico said, "Football is a sport in which severe injuries can happen when a child is not properly coached. Most youth football coaches are concerned only with winning."
The concern comes from parents who care less about the NFL and those who are rabid fans, which shouldn't be surprising considering some of the NFL's biggest stars, including former quarterback Kurt Warner and New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, have said they don't even want their boys to play football.
The concussion issue has become part of the NFL story of late, with more than 3,000 former players suing the league on allegations that officials withheld information about the dangers of head injuries. Players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia -- attribute their condition to repeated head injuries sustained on the field. Concussions and CTE also have been brought up as possible factors in the suicides of former players, including Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.
In the survey, about 94 percent of NFL fans said they feel that concussions are a serious problem in the NFL. For some, it even affects the way they enjoy the game, with about 18 percent saying the concussion debate has made them less likely to follow football or watch it on television.
"It has made me more concerned about the hard hits. I do not enjoy them the way that I did before," said a woman from Colorado who described herself as a casual NFL fan.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the survey "underscores the importance of something that we've embraced, which is that concussions are serious business and need to be treated as such. And that's why we've taken a leadership position to bring awareness, education and best practices to addressing concussions."
According to the survey, there is a divide among NFL fans about what to do about the concussion conundrum. Half of NFL fans argue that hard hits need to be minimized to reduce injuries, and the other half say hard hits are what help make the NFL a great game.
"Football is a game of hitting and contact, but what we're focused on is eliminating unnecessarily dangerous techniques and making the game as safe as possible," Aiello said. " There's a way to make the game safer and more exciting at the same time. It's been done in the past, and we believe we're doing it again."
NFL fans are divided in terms of who they feel is most responsible for addressing the concussion issue, whether it's the players, the league, the union, commissioner Roger Goodell or team owners. But about seven out of 10 fans say they side with the players in their lawsuit against the NFL. A man from Texas argued that if the players had all the information on concussions available to them, they might have played differently. An avid NFL fan from Washington said the NFL "expects the players to give everything they have on the field. And if injuries cause issues that are with the player beyond their playing career, the NFL needs to help them medically and financially."
For years the NFL denied any connection between concussions and the prevalence of brain injuries, but the tide turned somewhat under the tenure of Goodell, who put a new emphasis on studying the effect of concussions, responding to them on the field, levying stiffer penalties for illegal violent hits and supporting changes to cut down on the number of head-wrecking blows. As an example, last year the NFL moved to reduce kickoff returns, which tend to produce some of the most forceful impacts, and saw a 12.5 percent drop in concussions overall. Aiello points out that the NCAA made the same rule change -- having teams kick off from the 35-yard-line instead of the 30 -- starting this season.
"We're taking a broad approach. We'll have an impact not just on our game, at all levels, but on all sports. We know that the rules we put in place are often adopted at the youth, high school and college level, so that's a responsibility we take seriously," Aiello said.
He points to the NFL's support and advocacy of Washington state's Lystedt Law that mandates any young athlete suspected of having a concussion be removed from the game and not allowed to resume playing or practice until cleared by a medical professional. And it requires educating parents, athletes and coaches about the dangers and signs of concussions. It's named after Zackery Lystedt, who suffered a brain injury in 2006 after continuing to play in a middle school football game following a concussion. The law is now in effect in 39 states. The league and the NFL Players Association are also partners in a nationwide $1 million effort to better protect young players by donating new helmets to kids in poor communities.
Fans support several measures to protect players, from the pros down to Pop Warner, but they draw the line at changes that would fundamentally alter the professional game.
For example, there's almost universal support for high-tech helmets that offer better protection, strong favor for increased suspensions and fines for illegal hits, and better monitoring of players' brains. Yet fans turn against suggestions of shortening the season, eliminating kickoffs, removing face masks to prevent helmet-to-helmet hits, and banning tackling. They're more supportive of making youth football a less-physical game, though, including a ban on full-contact football for children 14 and younger and instituting a rule that would prevent any child who sustains a concussion from participating in football for a year.
Although many youth leagues allow boys as young as 5 to participate, survey respondents said they think the minimum age should be closer to 12. And they don't believe today's coaches are very savvy on noticing and addressing concussions.
It remains to be seen what the trend says about the future of football and the next generation of fans. On one hand, about 60 percent of NFL fans who responded to the survey said they believe that recent rules changes have reduced concussions, and a similar amount believes the number will continue to go down over the next decade. However, about 41 percent of parents say the recent attention to concussions has had an impact on the number of kids hitting the field. "I still love football," said a man from Hawaii who said he was an avid NFL fan. "But I am more leery about letting my sons play."
Alexander faces a personal dilemma, as he's hoping the Texans make it to the playoffs again this season and plans to watch the games with his children.
"I've had conversations with my wife, and she says, 'You know, you're kind of a hypocrite in some ways because you watch it with them and then you'll tell them they can't play,'" he said. "Well, I don't know. Maybe I should stop watching it."
Aiello said he believes that type of thought represents an overreaction. There are risks and injuries in any sport, he said, and there are many lifelong, character-building benefits to playing football, including the emphasis on teamwork, perseverance and overcoming adversity.
"We've done so much to improve the culture of safety in our sport that I would ask him to take another look, and discuss it with his son," the league spokesman said. " We don't take anything for granted. We don't take success for granted or the future for granted. We embrace opportunities for improvement and we're doing all the things we're doing. We understand the perspective of the fans and the concerns about the safety of the game, and we're working hard on it."
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.