NFL's All-Time Popularity Continues to Lead Despite Controversial Era

John Rozum@Rozum27Correspondent IJanuary 31, 2013

Roger Goodell and the NFL enter an intriguing future.
Roger Goodell and the NFL enter an intriguing future.Mario Tama/Getty Images

The NFL manages to remain America's most popular sport despite the controversial era of player safety.

It's quite a fascinating phenomenon.

Heading into Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, pro football holds a significant edge over everything else in popularity.

(2012 poll percentages courtesy of Harris Interactive via

Sport % Cited As Favorite
NFL 34
Baseball 16
College Football 11
Auto Racing 8

These numbers are a slight change from one year ago when we were preparing for a Super Bowl rematch between the New York Giants and New England Patriots.

(2011 poll percentages courtesy of Harris Interactive via the Sports Business Daily)

Sport % Cited As Favorite
NFL 36
Baseball 13
College Football 13
Auto Racing 8

Now it's important that we remember this is during an era of increased emphasis on player safety, which has generated plenty of discussion across the NFL spectrum.

Led by writers Nathan Fenno and Luke Rosiak, the Washington Times has compiled a list consisting of over 4,000 former players currently suing the NFL.

Here is a graph of breaking down the players by position.

(photo courtesy of the Washington Times)

Yet, in spite of all this, the NFL still remains America's favorite sport. This is because we as fans have a craving for that violence offered by the sport.

No other team sport provides the amount of contact like football. Hockey and rugby are certainly violent in their own right, but neither incorporate the uber-violent nature offered from pro football.

We get to see 250-pound linebackers collide at full speed with 225-pound running backs play after play. And these guys can accelerate to top speed within a span of two seconds. Just watching the NFL Scouting Combine displays the immense amount of athleticism given at each position.

And the contact of the game has been compared to car accidents. Yes, that's how physically imposing the game can be on a player.

In an article by Alan Schwarz of the New York Times in January of 2009:

The tackle, the art of making the ball carrier not stay in motion, is football’s most primeval action. Amusing physicists the way batting averages do actuaries, collisions lead the highlight reels, impart the force of a deadly car crash, and rely upon kinematics that date to a considerably different big bang.

“The tackler doesn’t want his body to be a big spring — these players lower their shoulder and tense up and launch to make their force go up,” said Stefan Duma, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech who has studied the similarities between football collisions and car crashes. “It’s like trying to break down a door — you try to get all your mass behind you and drive it through one point. You want to get all your mass to act as one mass, one missile.”

The problem that currently resides in the game is a contradiction.

Players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster. After all, the physical ability is a major requirement needed to sustain longevity in the league, not to mention potential success.

Plus, greater athletes makes each game more exciting than the last; more spectacular catches, deep throws, swifts juke moves, diving tackles and most of all, big hits.

On the flip side is player safety.

So, how can we expect players of greater athleticism to slow down on a dime? It's obviously becoming an issue, because of the number of former players suing the league and the rise of concern with each new injury.

Even players who don't get hit are at risk to injury simply from trying to change directions. Their athleticism comes back to bite, just as it did to Bo Jackson.

(Jump to 9:44 mark to listen to why Jackson got injured)

It was Jackson's athleticism that ultimately ended his career. He was so big, fast and strong that his body couldn't withstand an immediate stoppage of force.

This is a scary look at pro football's future in a nutshell.

Because the more explosive one becomes, the greater risk occurs when getting tackled or trying to quickly redirect on the field. Still, us fans want to see the exciting athletes and that's what made Jackson so appealing.

The same can be said for the entire league in the 21st century. But better athletes have unfortunately led to the current situation Roger Goodell and Co. now face.

Football will just never be a safe sport, period. Regardless of the level of a player's athleticism, the violent nature is what lies at the core of the game.

Safety Bernard Pollard of the Baltimore Ravens shed his outlook earlier this week. Per Kevin Manahan of USA Today:

Bernard Pollard is known for hard hits and he leveled one at the NFL this week when he predicted the league wouldn't be around in 30 years, because the crackdown on ferocious hits will turn off fans.

"There's a car crash every play," he said. "Those helmets are popping, those pads are hitting. This is a grown man's game.

"But then you say this game is getting more dangerous, let's reduce the hits. But guys are getting bigger, faster, stronger. You can put a bigger helmet on me, but it's still going to create the same contact. Things are still going to happen.

Pollard is right, because everything traces back to the nature of the game.

Another area that was greatly affected involving player safety, though, was the referees getting locked out. From Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News:

And guess what?

That didn't bother to dent pro football's popularity, and neither did the previous player's lockout.

In another poll by Harris Interactive via Gregg Rosenthal of in October of 2012:

"Football remains popular and even shows a rise in interest since last year," the poll stated. "In 2011, over half of Americans (55 percent) said they followed professional football -- a slight increase from 2010, when 53 percent said so. This year, that number rises further, with 59 percent of Americans saying they follow professional football; this is the highest percentage to indicate this since The Harris Poll first started asking the question in 1992."

Talk about an astounding figure.

To make this controversial era of player safety even worse, despite the popularity, is the reemergence of moving to an 18-game regular season.

According to Bob Costas of NBC Sports via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk:

“I think it’s still on the table, but it’s obviously going to be discussed at length with the players and the [NFL] Players Association,” [Ray] Anderson [NFL executive V.P. of football operations] said. 

And per Albert Breer of

This is straight up unbelievable.

The push for an 18-game season in no way makes the game safer. Unless the league were to include another bye week, increase the rosters and significantly raise the salary cap, this must be averted.

Otherwise we'll just see a rise in injuries and eventually make the final change to flag football.

Along with the potential increase of injuries courtesy of a longer season, more fines can be expected as well. That simply adds to the controversy of this decade and Goodell's tenure as commissioner.

Call it contradictory, hypocritical or whatever you like: Because the NFL knows its popularity dominates the competition.

Now isn't that fascinating?


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