"That's a real concern, and I believe that safety has a lot to do with it," said former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who suffered 10 concussions during his NFL career.
Aikman, now a football analyst for Fox Sports, doesn't have a son, but if he did, he says he might not feel comfortable pushing him toward football. He is not alone among former players who have expressed that sentiment. Familiar with both the game's risks and rewards, though, Aikman said he might also have a difficult time discouraging a son from playing the sport.
Aikman said new legislation and improved equipment has actually made the game safer today, but that the NFL still struggles to dissociate itself from a culture of violence, which to a certain segment of fans remains the game's biggest appeal.
Aikman closely followed the "bountygate" scandal surrounding the New Orleans Saints, in which players were accused of receiving financial rewards for big hits and knocking opposing players out of games. While the league moved aggressively to punish those it believed were responsible, Aikman said the NFL did little to curb the story from dominating water-cooler discussion throughout the offseason.
"In fact," he said, "in some ways I think they promoted a lot of the coverage that came with bountygate. . . . I don't think that was good for the game."
That culture seeps down to the game's roots, and parents have no troubles connecting the dots to the sport's highest level. In fact, last month in Southern California, a coach and youth league president were suspended amidst allegations that a pee-wee team paid players for big hits and injuring opposing standouts. In Massachusetts last month, five players suffered concussions in a single Pop Warner game, leading to the suspensions of both coaches.