Amid growing concerns about the effects of football and concussions on the health of the sport’s players, a new poll from the Polling Institute at Robert Morris University suggests that Americans are more aware than ever of the dangers the sport may pose — and that perhaps sweeping changes should be made to how the game is played at the youth levels. According to the poll, more than 40 percent of Americans surveyed say that tackle football should be banned before the high school level.
That’s still less than a majority, as 48.4 percent say football should still be available to athletes before the high school age. But go slightly younger, and the findings for football get worse: a plurality, 47.5 percent, say the sport should be banned for children before they reach middle school age.
The poll, which was conducted through online methods from 1,003 surveys taken between October 23 and November 1 among a random scientific sampling of Americans, was released a day after ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported that participation in Pop Warner, America’s largest football league, dropped by 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. It’s unclear whether that decline is cyclical, related to concerns about brain injuries, or tied to other factors, like the sluggish economy or young athletes’ concentration on single sports. But youth football officials believe head injuries are a leading cause, and the poll also comes at a time when concerns about the dangers the sport poses, both from head injuries like concussions and from spinal and neck injuries, is at a high.
The numbers may not be as bad for football as they initially look. Just 16 percent strongly believed that the sport should be banned before high school, and another 24.5 percent somewhat believed with the idea. 28.4 percent are somewhat opposed to the idea, while 20 percent strongly oppose such a ban. With regard to middle school, 22.5 percent strongly supported the idea with 25.2 percent somewhat supportive, while 23 percent were somewhat opposed and 18.2 percent strongly resisted the ban. The poll is the first done by Robert Morris’ new Polling Institute, which works in conjunction with Trib Total Media.
As with any poll, as well, it’s simply a snapshot of current thinking, and there is perhaps not enough evidence to believe that the public perception should translate into actual policy. Experts like Dr. Robert Cantu, a brain specialist who consults with the NFL, have suggested that tackle football should be banned before age 14, but there is no medical consensus behind that idea. Others suggest age 15, while others say there is no need for any ban whatsoever. Recent studies have shown that high school athletes may be more susceptible to concussions than those in college and the professional ranks, but a lack of research about the true effects of concussions and brain injuries that result from football has prevented any concrete answers about what the game does to its players, particularly those at the younger end of the spectrum. With that in mind, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about when children should begin playing tackle football or whether they should at all.
Still, the poll’s findings suggest that parents are aware of the ongoing conversation about head injuries in football. That is significant, because even as we wait for more research about the real dangers of the sport, parents are the game’s most significant voting bloc. No group, perhaps, has more power to reshape the game and its future than the parents who determine whether or not they’ll let their children — the next generation of players and fans — participate.