When I was a kid, I didn't pay any attention to sports. I didn't particularly mind them in principle, but I really couldn't play them myself, got held out of P.E., and so didn't spend any time thinking about them.
Some time after college I started following the Steelers, mainly as a social thing. I have lots of friends who are big Steelers fans, and people have parties. Plus, it's a common topic of conversation in the Burgh, so it's good to be passably literate on the subject. To my own surprise, I kind of got into it. I'd say I am now a more-interested-than-average fan of professional football. Because of my late start, there's still a lot I don't know about the game, but I'm at the point where I immediately start cursing if our team lines up in an empty set on 3rd and one. (Seriously, really? You don't want to stick a runner in there to at least pretend like you might go up the middle? We miss you, Bus.)
Anyway, I think the game partly appeals because it is slow and punctuated and you can think about strategy. But it also appeals because it's fun, on a visceral level, to see big guys pound each other violently. It's also nice to be able to indulge one's primal tribalist instinct: most of the time, I try to convince myself that I'm a relatively rational person and that I support the United States because our Constitution provides for a superior form of representational government. For football, no such higher-order cognition is required: I support the Steelers because they're my team, end of story.
(Of course, it helps that the Steelers win a lot, and are owned by one of the more likable families in professional sports.)
But these latter two points --- the violence and the tribalism of the game --- are problematic. I don't deny their appeal, but it isn't exactly celebrating the highest pinnacle of the human experience. I've made my peace with the tribal bit, I think. Like it or not, that's part of how we primates function, and it's probably better to work out such instincts in a game than by starting wars.
The violence though, has real consequences for the players. It's true that we pay the stars of the game a lot, but the college players don't earn anything (and most never make it to the NFL). Many NFL players only play professionally for a couple of years, and earn relatively little. For this, they endure all kinds of orthopaedic injuries, and worse, concussions.
In Pittsburgh, two of our best (and highest paid) players, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu have suffered numerous concussions. There is mounting evidence that concussions in football are poorly diagnosed and treated, and that they lead to early-onset dementia. Some people even think that O.J.'s criminal behavior later in life may be related to brain damage.
The way the league currently deals with this problem is to minimize its severity and to haphazardly levy fines against players who hit too hard, or after the play is complete. These fines and penalties are very subjective, and, speaking as a fan of Pittsburgh defensive play, awfully frustrating.
On the flip side, the game is really damaging its players, and the quality of the game suffers too. In a lot of ways, football is now a game of attrition: a big reason we beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship is that we happened to be healthier than they were. But that's more luck than playing skill. Players are now so fast and so strong that injuries happen all the time.
So what can be done? I have a couple of ideas.
Let's start with the most radical (and terrifying). Take away the helmets and the pads. Presumably that would cause people to slow down. But a lot of players are psycho, and it would probably also cause some really terrible injuries.
A much more conservative solution is to mandate concussion-resistant helmets. This wouldn't help with the ACL injuries and broken bones, but might stem the tide of concussions slightly.
Another relatively conservative approach would be to increase the roster size (and probably the salary cap), and to mandate much more aggressive treatment for head injuries. Simply accept that over the course of the season a large proportion of players will miss extended playing time, and make the game more about roster depth than about a few indispensable stars. This wouldn't do much to eliminate injuries, but it would reduce the temptation to rush poorly treated athletes back on the field where the injury is compounded. It would also introduce another dimension to the game: part of coaching would be figuring out how to rotate players through the season and how to pre-emptively rest players. This is done to an extent now, but with only 53 players, there aren't a lot of choices that can be made.
I am not particularly in favor of continuing to slowly ratchet up the late-hit fines and add even more reasons why you can't tackle the quarterback. Doing that makes an already absurdly complex game more so, makes consistent officiating impossible, takes away from the visceral thrill, and eventually turns the game into something else entirely.