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Poll: Forty percent would steer kids away from football

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has discovered a startling statistic on public attitudes toward the number one sport in America.

Forty percent of Americans say they would encourage their children to play a different sport than football due to concerns about concussions, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. 

This comes just days before the Super Bowl and in the midst of a major ongoing lawsuit which questions whether the National Football League did enough to prevent concussions or provide care for players suffering from brain injuries. 

There is a striking split when it comes to how those at different income levels see the issue. Forty seven percent of respondents making the highest incomes (more than $75,000 per year) say they don’t want their children playing football due to these concerns while just 28 percent of those with the lowest incomes (less than $30,000) say the same. 

Still, 57 percent of Americans in the survey say they would have no problem if their child wanted to play organized football. 

"I think it's important for parents, especially parents of youngsters under 14, to have this discussion,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “If the youngster doesn't have a passion for a sport with a high risk of head injury than he is probably better off with some other sport."

Lm Otero / AP file

A young football player lines up on defense during a 6th grade youth football game in Richardson, Texas, in 2010. Some of the players were using a new type of football helmet designed to reduce the risk of concussions.

Last year, the National Football League reached a $765 million settlement with thousands of retired former players – including some suffering from concussion-related injuries – who had filed a lawsuit alleging that the league failed to disclose the dangers of head trauma. But a federal judge denied the settlement’s early approval, arguing that the sum might not be enough to cover all concussion-related claims. 

A series of high-profile suicides in recent years have shed light on the long-term damage that violent blows to the head can have on players long after they step off the field. Retired all-pro linebacker Junior Seau had a degenerative brain disease when he was found dead in 2012 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Seau’s death followed the suicides of former NFL players Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, both of whom complained that their years of the gridiron led to a deteriorating mental state. 

More and more former NFL players are speaking out about the impact that football has had on them later in life. Rayfield Wright, a star offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, revealed for the first time on Sunday that he suffers from dementia. “These young players, they have no idea what’s in store for them,” he told the New York Times. “They don’t know.” 

Star quarterback Brett Favre told NBC’s TODAY show in November that he has experienced warning signs of the toll football has taken on him, including glaring memory lapses like not being able to recall that his youngest daughter played soccer. 

“I don't remember her playing soccer … that was probably where my first inclination that something ain't right," he said. 

Legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview about a possible connection between his memory loss and many years playing football. He also gives his take on the Miami Dolphins flap, saying bullying in the NFL is "part of the locker room."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent head injuries and educate players about the potential long-term impact of head trauma. But the NFL points to a series of recent rules changes as proof the league is addressing the issue.  New rules like moving up the kickoff line, stricter penalties for hits to the head and diagnosing concussions on the sidelines are all policies the league has implemented in an effort to lower the amount of concussions. 

The NFL said on Thursday that in the last year, there was a 13 percent drop in game and practice concussions

Forty one percent of Americans in the poll – including 59 percent who say they follow professional football closely – say they believe the NFL has taken meaningful action to reduce and prevent concessions.  Another 20 percent think the NFL hasn’t taken meaningful action, and 38 percent say they don’t know enough to have an opinion. 

Last week, Goodell said he would be open to allowing players to use medical marijuana if experts could show it helped treat concussions. 

President Barack Obama has even weighed in on the issue. “I would not let my son play pro football,” he recently told The New Yorker magazine

Lawyers on both sides are finalizing details of a settlement which compensates former players and funds medical research. Players who developed debilitating brain injuries after spending a short time in the NFL may not receive as much as those who were injured after playing for a longer period of time.  NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

Even recent NFL greats like Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner have said they would hesitate to allow their children to play football.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Jan. 22-25 of 800 adults (including 240 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.5 percentage points.

NBC News contributor Linda Carroll and NBC’s Andrew Rafferty contributed to this report.