40% of Americans say they would encourage their children to play a different sport than football due to concerns about concussions, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Photo: Getty

Peter Nelson, a Seattle Seahawks fan, will cheer every bone-jarring hit when the team's defense squares off against Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his offense in this Sunday's Super Bowl.

But the 32-year-old engineering professor would be much less enthused if he ever had to watch his son, now 8 months old, deliver or receive one of those punishing blows.

Mr. Nelson counts himself among the 40% of American adults, and 37% of parents, who would encourage their child to play a sport other than football because of concerns about concussions, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

"It just seems like everything that has come out over the last few years make it scarier and scarier to see what happens to people who have played football for years," Mr. Nelson said.

That puts Mr. Nelson in a distinct but sizable minority. Nearly 60% of respondents in the poll—and 62% of parents—said they wouldn't discourage their children from playing football.

Additionally, a large plurality of 41% said the National Football League has taken "meaningful action to reduce and prevent" concussions. That includes 52% of parents and 59% of people who follow the NFL closely. Some 20% said the NFL hadn't taken meaningful action.

Professional football has been the country's most popular sport for three decades, according to an annual survey conducted by the Harris Poll, and the Super Bowl is regularly the most-watched event on television each year.

But questions of safety have dogged the league in recent years as research suggested a link between concussions and a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia, depression and other brain-related illnesses.

Last August, the NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement with thousands of former players who had sued the league, alleging it had concealed dangers related to concussions and other issues related to long-term health concerns.

In recent years, the NFL has taken steps to make the game safer and limit concussions, establishing new rules to protect players and limit many of the biggest helmet-to-helmet collisions. The NFL is also funding research into traumatic brain injuries, and has launched a program to promote player safety in youth football leagues across the country.

League officials announced Thursday that concussions in the current season are down 13% from last year and that concussions resulting from helmet-to-helmet hits are down 23%.

This survey marks the first time the Journal/NBC poll has asked whether concussion-related concerns have spurred parents to prevent their children from playing football, so it is unclear whether people are more or less alarmed than before. The survey, taken Jan. 22-25, included 800 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

Tonya Bier, a 39-year-old mother of four in Elizabethton, Tenn., said she dismisses much of the hand-wringing over football and that she wouldn't discourage her children from playing the sport. Three of her four children are actively involved in sports other than football, and she said there are dangers inherent in each.

"You're just as likely to get concussions in another sport," she said.

Ms. Bier said she is encouraged by the increased research into whether concussions lead to permanent brain damage, because it means doctors and scientists are finally addressing the issue and can devise better treatments and more ways to prevent it.

There is little difference in how much men and women, or parents and nonparents, worry about football-related brain trauma. But there are big disparities among income brackets and educational background.

Roughly a quarter of people who make $30,000 or less would encourage their child to play a sport other than football, but roughly half of those people who make $75,000 or more said they would.

Similarly, about one-in-three people who didn't go to college said they would encourage their kids to play a sport other than football. That rises to 42% for college graduates and 57% for people with postgraduate degrees.

There also is a gap between Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats more likely to guide their kids to play another sport. Democrats split almost evenly between those who would discourage their kids from playing football and those who wouldn't.

Among people who follow the NFL closely, 34% would encourage their kids to play another sport, compared with the 65% who wouldn't.

Mr. Nelson, a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., who closely follows news reports about football-related head injuries, said he wouldn't refuse to let his son play football but would sit down with him and explain the potential health risks of the sport.

"I would start out by letting him decide what he would like to do," he said. "If it came down to football or something else, I might gently nudge him to play something else."