Josh Houtz’s love for the Miami Dolphins goes back decades.
It started when he was a kid, just 5 or 6 years old, watching the players fly across the TV screen. To him, they almost seemed like superheroes.
Back then, Houtz never thought about the toll the game could take on a player’s body. He celebrated the big hits and the jarring tackles without a second thought.
But now he’s 36 and he has three kids of his own, all 5 years old and younger. And because of what he now knows about football injuries, NFL players don’t seem so superhuman anymore.
Houtz, who lives in Pennsylvania and hosts a podcast about the Dolphins, isn’t the only one looking at the NFL a little differently these days.
Over the past year, a handful of frightening on-field incidents, like Damar Hamlin’s frightening collapse in January and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s multiple concussions last fall that left him stumbling on the turf, have continued to raise questions surrounding the safety of America’s most-watched sport.
And as another NFL season kicks off this week, these questions haven’t gone away.
In a preseason game last month, Daewood Davis, a rookie wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, laid motionless on the field for several minutes after a hit by a Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker. He was taken to a nearby hospital and later placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
A similar injury happened a week earlier to the New England Patriots’ Isaiah Bolden. And on that same day, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback John Wolford was carted off the field with a neck injury. In the cases of Bolden and Davis, the league suspended the rest of the game.
The NFL has long faced questions about player safety as players grow bigger and faster and more research shows how damaging repeated hits to the head can be. Long-term degenerative brain diseases such as CTE and Parkinson’s have become huge concerns for football players and their families.
And yet even with the inherent risks, fans still flock to games and football seems as popular as ever. Of the top 100 most-watched TV programs in the US last year, including scripted shows, 82 were NFL games.
Why do so many people like to watch ferocious, 250-pound men slam into each other over and over? The answer, scholars say, may have to do with our fascination with violence.
In the right context, humans like to cheer violence
Football isn’t the only collision and combat sport people are attracted to. UFC and MMA fights draw huge crowds as well, as do sports like boxing and ice hockey. (
“(People) have this need to find ways to bring excitement and arousal and energy into their life,” says Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University who studies sports fans. “Sports is one of the things that will do that.”
And it’s not just sports. That same excitement over violence drives much of our entertainment – just look at the success of shows like “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” and “Squid Game.”
People may be drawn to violence in media as an arousal boost, says Arthur Raney, a communications professor at the University at Buffalo. Through sports, movies, books, and other diversions, those feelings can bring a thrill to our otherwise dull daily lives, he says.
And while celebrating someone’s demise isn’t usually acceptable in broader society, within the context of a sport or fictional story it is “perfectly permissible,” Raney says.
“This is one reason why NFL fans can cheer for the most violent-looking tackles imaginable – because they are allowed in the game. But when that tackle leaves a player injured, everyone falls silent,” Raney says. “The game context is broken, and spectators see the situation through the lens of ‘real-life.’ And everyone stops cheering.”
Humans like conflict, Raney adds, and violence is one way to portray that. We cheer for the triumph of good over evil, and the more we like the hero, the more we want them to destroy their enemies, he says. Our sports teams are the same way.
“When they win, when they dominate another team, you get a boost to your self-esteem. You feel better about yourself,” Raney says. “We like the violence because it leads to the outcome that we hope for, and that makes us feel good.”
That endorphin rush is what fans are looking for – not necessarily the injuries themselves, says Wann, the Murray State professor.
“Wanting to see two people run into each other at incredibly fast speeds, with chiseled bodies, that’s one thing,” says Wann, who describes himself as a football fan. “That’s different than saying ‘I hope they get hurt.’”
But it’s hard to have one, he notes, without the other.
‘People still love to see a huge tackle’
Sarah Bowman is a 27-year-old athletic trainer in Boone, North Carolina. She’s been a football fan most of her life, she says, having grown up watching the sport with her father. Even now, she still texts him on game days.
“There’s a level of excitement over a really physical play, (when) somebody … shows a level of courage or fearlessness,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily drawn to the sheer brute force of it, but there’s something to me that’s exciting and admirable about the physicality of the sport.”
There are few sports in the US with the ability within the rules to “quite literally lay your body out on the line,” Bowman adds.
“We’ve done a decent job in the sport to limit head and neck injuries. But people still love to see a huge tackle.”
It’s unclear whether fears over serious injuries to players have affected the sport’s popularity.
The NFL did see a dip last season in viewership, with an average of 16.7 million people tuning in to a game during the regular season – down from 17.1 million the season before. Still, some attribute the decline to Thursday Night Football being moved to Amazon Prime, rather than cable.
Some fans have questioned their love of the game and have even chosen to turn away from the sport altogether. Youth participation in tackle football has declined almost 20% over the last decade, according to one 2022 study. The reason? Concern over concussions and long-term brain damage.
“Football fans are like, ‘I love the physicality, but I’m certainly not going to put my child into that,” Wann says.
But others have remained steadfast.
Houtz remembers watching last season’s Dolphins game against the Cincinnati Bengals when Tagovailoa’s fingers locked up after a big hit, just four days after another game in which a hit to the head left him wobbly. For Houtz, it was an “image that you just can’t get out of your head.”
“It weighs on you a little bit, as a fan,” he says. “But overall, if you’ve been a fan for 30 years, it’s hard to turn away now.”
Some football fans rationalize their love of the sport
When it comes to the ethics of supporting football, many fans must do a careful dance, Wann says, rationalizing their love for the sport in spite of its dangers with statements like, “No one is forcing them to play,” “They make millions,” and “The league is trying to make it safer.”
“They’re figuring out ways to convince themselves that it’s OK,” he says. “For most fans, it works.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. This ethical debate can be a struggle, especially since injuries are inevitable in sports like football.
“You try to remember that everyone playing it knows how intense it is. So they’re willing to do it,” Houtz says. “But it can definitely be brutal to watch sometimes.”
After all, the physicality and the violence is part of what makes football, well, football. Fans don’t want to see players get hurt, but many still want to see hard hits on the field.
Just look at the 2023 Pro Bowl game, essentially the league’s all-star game, which takes place the weekend before the Super Bowl. For the first time last season, the NFL replaced the traditional tackle football game with a gentler flag football matchup. Viewership dropped by 6% compared to the year before.
To mitigate the risk of serious injury the NFL has made a series of changes, including safer helmets, fair catches on kickoffs, new safety protocols around concussions and penalties for players who “target” opponents with their helmets during hits.
Houtz gives credit to the league for trying to make the sport safer. But he says it’s always going to be a violent game.
According to data from the league, last season the NFL saw 149 concussions – a head injury that can lead to long-term changes in the brain particularly when repeated. That number was an 18% jump from the season prior.
And still, 70% of NFL fans said head injuries do not impact their interest in watching games, according to a survey by Morning Consult conducted last October, before Hamlin’s injury scare.
“There’s some sort of primal thing in us that likes to see the intensity of athletics,” says Bowman, the athletic trainer. “But I think it’s important to pause and think about why we’re drawn to these things (and) how we can make these sports sustainable, especially when you’re talking about the NFL.”
Sure, the players know the risks they’re taking, she says. But Bowman believes people related to the sport, from referees to sports medicine professionals, have a responsibility to keep things “within a boundary of reasonable risk.”
Even with all its injuries and risks, football is not going away anytime soon.
Wann recalls watching a preseason game last month and witnessing two players get carted off the field in stretchers with apparent head injuries. He hated seeing it.
But that didn’t make him want to quit watching football. The next game, he says, he knew he’d be right back.