While USA Football, the sport's national governing body, estimates 3 million children participate in youth football across the country, at least one study, conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, a Silver Spring, Md.-based trade association, found an 11 percent decline in tackle football's "core" participation the past three years.
Throughout the country, youth football is trying to regain its footing.
While he's been addressing rules and concussion protocols the past two years, Goodell said the challenge is bigger: The culture surrounding the sport must change.
"It doesn't happen overnight," he said. "You have to make changes and there are things that we have to do and stress over a period of time. . . . It's about changing the way people approach the game."
A tour of the youth football leagues in the Washington area shows some justification for the commissioner's concern.
The Lower Loudoun Boys Football League, which plays in the one of fastest-growing counties in the nation, is down at least 100 players and has eliminated five teams. In Fairfax, Va., the youth league has seen a nearly 10 percent drop in registration figures in recent years, falling from 6,700 players in 2010 to 6,034 this fall. The biggest decreases are among entry-level teams that feature younger players; the "anklebiters," 75-pound and 85-pound weight classes have lost a total of 35 teams in three years.
In Maryland, Rockville Football League's overall participation numbers are unchanged, but the league's organizers have seen losses in the youngest age groups. "If anything is going to hurt youth football, that's what will hurt," said Eric Hechman, the league president. "That's the lifeblood."
A recent Washington Post poll found that 67 percent of Americans say they'd still recommend children play youth or high school football, while 22 percent would discourage it. Of those who would discourage participation in youth football, 80 percent cited a chance of injury as a reason.