Polls are notoriously untrustworthy things. They are often commissioned by people with a result in mind before the data is even collected, and even those who are honestly conducted are immediately attacked as partisan or even sloppy representations if the results don’t mesh with someone’s closely held preconceptions.
Nevertheless, they can scare the hell out of people (always a good thing in the world of sports, in this opinion), and the new Center for Public Opinion study at the University of Massachusetts Lowell that polled 1,000 people who are fairly united in their feeling that tackle football is not something for children under the age of 15.
This perfectly logical notion (a) must scare the hell out of the football industry and (b) is why the National Football League is doubling down on bizarrely-named programs like Operation Mom, which exists as a public relations and marketing arm specifically targeting mothers to convince them that football at a young age is a great idea, and named as such, as though mothers might find the name somehow alluring as a persuasive argument.
But the most troubling aspect of the study for the football industry (pro, college, high school and below) is that 85 percent of respondents said it was either “certainly true” (31 percent) or “probably true” (54 percent) that there is a settled science that playing football can cause CTE.
That’s the problem for the business. Even making the case that flag football is a safe way to introduce children to the dramatically more unsafe pastime of tackle football is the rough equivalent of saying that coal mining is an unsafe job so let’s get kids introduced to the business by having them mine zinc.
The point is, if this poll actually represents the new orthodoxy of parenthood, football now has the monumentally more difficult task of convincing parents that there are acceptable gradations to introduce children to a line of work those parents believe may very well be unsafe.
This does not speak directly to the science of CTE, which is still in its adolescence (some people like to say “infancy,” but there has been enough work to suggest that the subject has aged), but to the notion that parents are less convinced that the level of risk is acceptable.
And let’s be honest, football is entirely a hearts-and-minds pursuit. There are parts of the country where football is a nearly inevitable pursuit for children, but parts where it is not, and the strongest pull for kids to play comes from their parents, and their peers, who often get it from their parents. You put enough parents on the other side, and eventually you have a sport where people are willing to watch other people’s children risk brain damage but not their own.
This is, as the marketing types like to say, not a sustainable business model.
It also must be said that this is not an immediate danger to the business, where the laws of supply and demand are still heavily skewed toward supply. There are plainly more players than available positions overall at present, which is why players still get cut from teams in a lot of places.
But this poll suggests yet again what the NFL in particular fears and what people are coming to see in their own experience -- that the choice to play football is no longer a fait accompli, and that some parents are not only willing to limit it but take it off the table for their children entirely.
That’s one prong of the danger. The other is insurance, which under the present system underwrites the danger but in some cases is unwilling to do that, as in the case of Haruki Nakamura, an NFL player for five years whose career ended in 2013 after a concussion. According to a lawsuit by the player, Lloyd’s of London, with which Nakamura had a $1 million policy that would pay in case of a career-ending injury, has refused to pay his claim by using bureaucracy and a company-picked doctor to say that he could still play despite the evidence that he cannot.
This is not the NFL’s fault, mind you, but a sign that insurance companies are starting to find reasons not to indemnify football players. And given the league’s own poor record with its former players, that leaves the sensible young adult with the scary realization that in case of injury, they are what we in the medical community call "screwed."
So if your parents are telling you football may not be the safest use of your time, and if you ignore them and reached the highest level of the sport only to find out that your employers and the insurance companies are beginning to tell you that you face the danger pretty much alone, there is an obvious conclusion that more and more young people will reach.
And in 20 years or so, when Roger Goodell is safely retired and all the owners and athletic directors and coaches have retired and their successors reap the whirlwind of these realizations, then you’ll see why football is worried, and why “Operation Mom” is a largely a cynical exercise in kicking the can down the road. In other words, a very American solution to a problem that is growing right beneath its nose.