Americans Growing More Concerned About Head Injuries in Football

Limiting aggressive tackles one option favored by many, HealthDay/Harris Poll finds

09:00 AM EST Dec 21, 2015 Rating
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Americans Growing More Concerned About Head Injuries in Football

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter 

NEW YORK, N.Y. – As the National Football League continues to struggle with the health risks posed by concussions, a new HealthDay/Harris Poll finds that vast majorities of Americans say football teams need to do more to protect their players from head injuries.

The poll reveals that the public is now widely aware of the often-debilitating and sometimes deadly health problems facing many current and retired pro players -- a controversy that's the focus of a new Will Smith movie, Concussion, which premieres Christmas Day.

"There's definitely an increase in concern for players at all levels," said Dr. Sharief Taraman, a pediatric neurologist at Children's Hospital of Orange County, California. "Although it started with NFL players having these tragic outcomes, it's trickled down to even the pediatric level."

The poll findings also suggest that the more a person knows about the concussion crisis, the more likely he or she is concerned about it, Taraman added.

According to the poll, both the general public and pro football fans in particular say football teams at all levels -- from the pros to youth leagues -- should:

Americans also think that aggressive tackles that can lead to head injuries should be restricted in youth football (79 percent for the general public; 84 percent for football fans and 72 percent for non-fans).

A smaller majority also supports limiting aggressive tackles in pro football -- about three out of every five people, across the board.

The NFL instituted rules in 2010 designed to limit head injuries, but the public is generally skeptical about whether those rules are working, the poll found.

Only 44 percent feel the new rules have been effective. However, football fans are more likely than non-fans to say the new rules are working -- 57 percent versus 26 percent.

People may be skeptical because there are incentives at all levels of the NFL -- from players to coaches to team owners -- to not strictly enforce these rules, suggested Dr. Stephen Rice, director of the Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J.

Players want to stay on the field to keep their jobs, coaches need to keep strong players on the field to chalk up wins and protect their jobs, and owners want their teams to win -- and to make money, Rice said.

"Maybe people think it's not being enforced well," Rice said. "All the coaches are supposed to have learned this information, and athletic trainers and doctors are supposed to know it and practice it. It should be enforced, but we can do a better job and we should do a better job."

In a statement, the National Football League said: "The NFL has made numerous changes to the game to enhance the health and safety of players at all levels of football. These include nearly 40 rule changes in the last decade, strict concussion protocols, and better training and sideline medical care. We are seeing measurable results, including a 34 percent decrease in concussions in NFL games since the 2012 season.

"Additionally, we are funding independent scientific and medical research and the development of better protective equipment to advance further progress. The game continues to change, and the safety of our players remains our highest priority," the statement said.

Brains of some ex-players show Alzheimer's-like signs 

The concussion controversy in football traces back to at least 2002.

That's the year Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu decided on the spur of the moment to autopsy the brain of "Iron Mike" Webster, a star center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who died at age 50 after years of dementia had left him penniless and intermittently homeless.

Omalu discovered that Webster's brain was riddled with large clumps of tau protein, which generally is considered a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Omalu -- who's portrayed by Smith in the new movie -- published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005.

Omalu's research served as the spark for the concussion crisis in football. Since his initial discovery involving Webster, a stream of personal tragedies and research has further tied football at many levels -- not just the pro level -- to concussions and potential brain damage.

In perhaps the most shocking example, All-Pro linebacker Steve Baul "Junior" Seau took his own life in 2012 at age 43, shooting himself in the chest to preserve his brain for research that later showed it had sustained the same sort of damage as Webster's.

Earlier this year, NFL standout rookie linebacker Chris Borland quit the game after suffering two diagnosed concussions, specifically citing his fear of brain injury as his reason for ending a promising career.

A month later, a federal district court judge gave final approval to a lawsuit brought against the NFL by more than 5,000 former players, some of whom accused the league of downplaying the dangers of repeated concussions. The settlement provides payments of up to $5 million per player for those suffering from severe neurological disorders.

Also this year, NFL legend and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka said he wouldn't want his child to play football.

"I wouldn't. And my whole life was football," Ditka said on the HBO show Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. "I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do."

But, the HealthDay/Harris Poll also found that Americans think football players know the score when it comes to the threat of concussions and brain injury, and participate at their own risk. About 83 percent of the public -- and nine in 10 football fans -- agree that the risks of playing football are widely known, and that players have accepted those risks.

When poll participants were asked who should be held at least somewhat responsible for football players' well-being on the field:

"Despite obvious public concern over these types of injuries, there is also a prevailing sentiment that players know what they're getting into and are responsible for their own well-being, over and above any other party," said Larry Shannon-Missal, managing editor at The Harris Poll.

A huge majority of Americans believes that helmets should be changed to better protect players against concussions, including 86 percent of the general public and 92 percent of football fans.

But that opinion is based on a misconception, Rice said.

"Helmets have never, ever been able to prevent concussion," he said. "They're fabulous at preventing skull fractures and scalp lacerations, but they do not do anything that anyone has ever successfully measured to prevent concussions."

More information

To learn more about the poll findings, visit The Harris Poll.

For more on concussions in football, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


TABLE 1

WHO FOLLOWS PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL

“Do you follow professional football?”

Summary of “Yes” Responses

Base: All adults

 

Total

%

2015

58

2014

55

2013

54

2012

59

2011

55

2010

53

2009

51

2008

52

2007

49

2006

48

2005

49

2004

51

2003

50

2002

47

1999

53

1998

55

1997

51

1996

52

1995

49

1993

46

1992

49


 

TABLE 2 

WHO FOLLOWS PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL – BY DEMOGRAPHIC GROUP (2014)

“Do you follow professional football?”

Summary of “Yes” Responses

Base: All adults

 

Total

%

All Adults

58

Sex

         Male

72

         Female

46

Age

18-34

60

35-44

59

45-54

59

55-64

58

65+

55

Children in Household

Yes

63

No

56

Region

Northeast

58

South

56

Midwest

60

West

62

Education

         High School or less

54

         Some College

58

         College Graduate or higher

65

Annual Household Income

Less than $50,000

54

$50,000 - <$75,000

58

$75,000 - <$100,000

66

$100,000 or more

67


 

TABLE 3a

HEAD INJURY STATEMENTS – Summary Grid

“Recently there has been more discussion that repeated concussions suffered in sports can potentially lead to long term brain damage and disability later in life. Thinking about this, how much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”

Base: U.S. Adults

 

AGREE (NET)

Strongly agree

Somewhat
agree

DISAGREE
(NET)

Somewhat disagree

Strongly disagree

Not at all sure

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Helmets should be changed to better protect against concussions.

86

63

23

4

2

2

10

The risks of playing football are widely known and players participate at their own risk.

83

52

31

8

5

3

9

Players who suffer a head injury should be required to take a minimum set amount of time off from playing to recover.

83

62

21

7

5

2

10

There should be a standardized test used to determine if and when injured players at all levels may return to the field.

82

59

23

7

5

3

11

Aggressive tackles which are more prone to leading to head injuries should be restricted in youth football.

79

58

21

11

7

4

10

Aggressive tackles which are more prone to leading to head injuries should be restricted in professional football.

62

31

30

25

17

8

13

The rules instituted in 2010 to limit head injuries have been effective.

44

10

34

27

19

8

29

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding


 

TABLE 3b

HEAD INJURY STATEMENTS

“Agree” By Generation, Gender & Follow Football

“Recently there has been more discussion that repeated concussions suffered in sports can potentially lead to long term brain damage and disability later in life. Thinking about this, how much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”

Base: U.S. Adults

 

2010 Total

2014 Total

2015 Total

Gender

Children in Household

Follow Pro Football

Male

Female

Yes

No

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Helmets should be changed to better protect against concussions.

83

83

86

86

86

84

86

92

77

The risks of playing football are widely known and players participate at their own risk.

83

82

83

85

81

85

82

91

72

Players who suffer a head injury should be required to take a minimum set amount of time off from playing to recover.

83

84

83

81

85

84

82

88

76

There should be a standardized test used to determine if and when injured players at all levels may return to the field.

79

82

82

83

81

82

82

88

74

Aggressive tackles which are more prone to leading to head injuries should be restricted in youth football.

79

76

79

76

82

78

80

84

72

Aggressive tackles which are more prone to leading to head injuries should be restricted in youth football.

NA

NA

62

60

63

61

62

62

61

The rules instituted in 2010 to limit head injuries have been effective.

NA

45

44

50

38

48

42

57

26

NA = not asked in that year.


 

TABLE 4

WHO SHOULD BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR FOOTBALL PLAYERS’ PHYSICAL WELL BEING

By Generation, Gender & Follow Football

“Which of the following parties, if any, do you believe should be held at least somewhat responsible for football players’ physical well-being when participating in the sport? Please select all that apply.”

Base: U.S. Adults

 

Total

Age

Gender

Children in Household

Follow Pro Football

18-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

Male

Female

Yes

No

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Players themselves

81

78

79

77

81

87

79

82

77

82

83

77

Coaches

71

70

67

72

68

77

68

74

68

72

72

69

Team owners

62

59

58

63

65

68

64

60

56

66

64

59

The sport’s governing body

56

50

48

58

62

65

66

47

47

61

59

52

Schools

43

38

38

41

47

50

46

40

39

44

44

40

Sponsors

16

23

13

11

14

15

17

15

19

15

16

17

Fans

6

9

8

2

6

4

8

4

8

5

7

6

Someone else

4

6

2

5

6

2

4

5

4

5

6

3

No one

4

4

6

5

5

3

4

5

5

4

2

8

NA = not asked in that year.


Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between November 23 and 25, 2015 among 2,096 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

About The Harris Poll®

Begun in 1963, The Harris Poll is one of the longest running surveys measuring public opinion in the U.S. and is highly regarded throughout the world. The nationally representative polls, conducted primarily online, measure the knowledge, opinions, behaviors and motivations of the general public. New and trended polls on a wide variety of subjects including politics, the economy, healthcare, foreign affairs, science and technology, sports and entertainment, and lifestyles are published weekly. 

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