Sports

A Clear Majority of NFL Fans Say Head Injuries Have No Effect on Their Interest in the Sport

1 in 3 NFL fans believe the Miami Dolphins are most at fault for allowing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to return to a Sept. 25 game against the Buffalo Bills, per new data

Medical staff tend to Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after an injury during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 29 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Seventy percent of NFL fans said head injuries don’t change their interest in watching games. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sustained what was first described as a head injury on Sept. 25 against the Buffalo Bills before returning to the game, with the team saying he had actually injured his back, not his head. Four days later, Tagovailoa suffered scary head and neck injuries against the Cincinnati Bengals on “Thursday Night Football” in front of more than 13 million TV viewers.

Tagovailoa’s situation forced the NFL and NFL Players Association to modify the league’s concussion protocol, including adding the term “ataxia” — described as “abnormality of balance and stability, motor coordination or dysfunctional speech caused by a neurological issue” — to the mandatory “no-go” symptoms. Under the modified guidelines, Tagovailoa would have been diagnosed with a concussion against the Bills, and thus removed from competition. 

A new Morning Consult survey showed that fans primarily blame the Dolphins for the debacle. One in 3 self-identified NFL fans and self-identified sports fans believe the NFL franchise’s coaching and training staff is most at fault for allowing Tagovailoa to re-enter the Bills game last month. Nearly 3 in 10 of both shares of respondents (28%) said the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, whom the NFL Players Association terminated amid the controversy, is most at fault.

Regardless of who’s to blame, the incident — and others like it — doesn’t appear to change most fans’ interest in America’s most popular sport. Nearly 3 in 4 fans (70%) said head injuries don’t affect their interest in watching NFL games. 

7 in 10 NFL Fans Say Player Head Injuries Have ‘No Impact’ on Game Interest

Respondents were asked how much NFL players’ sustaining of head injuries impacts their interest in watching games

Survey conducted Oct. 8-9, 2022, among a representative sample of 1,886 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Gen Z feels strongest toward NFL concussions 

  • Almost 1 in 3 NFL fans (30%) said that NFL players sustaining head injuries on the field has made them at least “somewhat less interested” in watching games. 
  • Among the demographics included in the survey, NFL head injuries drew the greatest negative response among Gen Zers, with 38% saying they made them either “somewhat less interested” or “much less interested.” Baby boomers were the least affected demographic, with nearly 4 in 5 (78%) saying head injuries have no influence on their interest in watching. 
Vast Majority of NFL Fans Say Players With Head Injuries Should Sit Out at Least 2 Weeks

Respondents were asked if a NFL player is taken out of a game for a head injury, how long should he wait until he returns

Survey conducted Oct. 8-9, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, including a representative split sample of 1,071 U.S. adults, with an overall unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

NFL fans preach patience with concussions

  • A plurality of NFL fans (43%) and self-identified “avid” NFL fans (47%) said a player who is removed from a game due to a head injury should wait two to four weeks before returning to play, if he is cleared to do so. Nearly 1 in 5 fans (19%) went as far as to say the player should “not play until next season,” compared with 28% of U.S. adults who answered the same. 
  • More than 3 in 5 sports fans (65%) said football is at least “somewhat unsafe,” making it the most dangerous sport among the options included in the survey. In 2021, the NFL recorded 187 player concussions, compared to 275 in 2015. Four percent of sports fans said golf is either “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe,” the least dangerous sport. 
  • A slight majority of both NFL fans (52%) and sports fans (53%) believe the NFL prioritizes profit over player safety, the survey found. 

Viewership remains strong 

Despite football’s inherent dangers to the brain, among other grievous bodily injuries, fans’ interest in the NFL remains strong, according to the recent Morning Consult data and TV viewership figures. NFL games currently make up 21 of the top 25 most-watched TV broadcasts of 2022, Sports Business Journal found, while Amazon.com Inc. has continued to draw positive viewership numbers in its inaugural season streaming “Thursday Night Football” on Prime Video. That includes the game in which Tagovailoa was concussed, forcing his arms into a “fencing response” — a telltale sign of a significant brain injury. 

The Oct. 8-9, 2022, survey was conducted among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, including 1,508 self-identified NFL fans, with an unweighted margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points and 3 percentage points, respectively. The survey also included 1,604 self-identified sports fans, with an unweighted margin of error of 2 percentage points.