Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

$100m to Know Why NFLers Die Young? Here’s Why, For Free

Football is a brutal sport that shortens lifespans for well-understood reasons.


On Jan. 29, five days before Super Bowl XLVII, a front-page story in the Boston Globe announced that Harvard University will receive $100,000,000 from the NFL to study the question of why retired professional football players suffer so many health problems and die, on average, in their mid- to late-50s—about 20 years younger than the average American male.[1]

I don’t know why they passed up my application. I would have answered their question for half that amount.  Oh, wait, maybe this is why they chose Harvard over me: According to the Globe article, Dr. Lee Nadler, the Harvard Medical School dean who will head the research project, said:  “We are not trying to change the game; we are trying to change the impact of the game.” How silly of me not to think that we could reduce the harmful effects of football without changing the game.

Is it possible that the NFL—and maybe all of America—is, in truth, more interested in justifying and preserving football as it is played now than in prolonging players’ lives?  Oh, bad me for even letting that thought flit through my mind! The Globe article goes on to quote the NFL as saying it has “no higher priority than player health and safety at all levels of the game.”  The fact that this is a billion dollar a year industry, currently being sued by more than 4,000 former players [2], has nothing to do with it.

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The real tragedy in my mind—and this is bad me again—has less to do with the thousands who make it to the NFL and then suffer, and more to do with the hundreds of thousands of boys and young men who damage themselves trying to make it to the NFL and never do make it.  They are the unsung victims of a nation gone crazy over this violent sport. Sport? We call this a sport?  We are a nation of obese couch potatoes who sit in front of the TV eating, drinking, cheering, booing, and swearing as obscenely bulked-up men smash repeatedly into one another. This is how we express our manhood.  Ouch, now I’ve done it.  It’s one thing to criticize schools, as I do in many of my posts; it’s quite another thing to criticize the American love of football. In fact, sometimes I think that the main purpose of schools—including the one where I’m a professor—is to support the football team.

Oh well, anyway, here I’ll offer, gratis, a few unproven hypotheses—pure speculation, mind you—about why ex football players have so many health problems and die so young.

Obesity

The average NFL player today weighs over 250 lbs and the average lineman is over 300 lbs.[3] What is the average age of death for all American men who weigh over 300 lbs when they are under 30 years old?  These people are not just obese; they are grossly obese. A 2005 survey by Scripps Howard newspapers of the deaths of nearly 4,000 professional football players revealed that linemen are twice as likely to die before age 50 as are those who play other positions.[3] A major cause of early death among retired football players is heart disease.  Hearts just can’t carry all that weight. Is anyone doing research to see why Sumo wrestlers die much younger than the average Japanese male? Does anyone think a hundred million dollars is needed to answer that question?

While medical experts everywhere are trying to get kids to lose weight, so they’ll live healthy, long lives, football coaches everywhere are trying to fatten them up—or, to use their term, bulk them up. The lineman’s job is to be a human battering ram. 

Here, for example, is the story of Roger Shultz, an all-American mention at Alabama who never made it to the NFL.[3]  In high school he weighed 235 lbs—way too heavy for good health, but not morbidly obese for his 6’2” frame.  He was at that time a good all around athlete; he could play sports other than football. When he went to Alabama on a football scholarship, he knew that to become a starter he was going to have to put on weight.  He developed the habit of eating as much as he could, on a regular basis.  “If they would deliver it to the dorm I’d eat it, eat it all,” he said.  He celebrated when his weight reached 300 lbs. When his career at Alabama ended, and there was no more football for him, he thought he would lose weight and become healthy again.  But no. The body is funny that way.  Once it puts on weight it fights hard to keep it on.  Few young football players know that; it’s not part of what the coaches and football medical personnel teach them. With his new more sedentary life and old eating habits, and a brain screaming hunger whenever he tried to diet, he soon ballooned up to nearly 400 lbs.

In recent times all this has moved down to the high school level. Indeed, the photo that heads this post is one if high school football players.  According to a report in the Dallas News, the weights of the all-state high school Texas linemen, class of 2013, ranged from a low of 270 lbs to a high of 300 lbs.  In contrast, in 1940, the all-state linemen weighed on average almost 100 lbs less--from a low of 175 llbs to a high of 214.[7]  What are we doing to our kids?

Brain damage

As I said, linemen are human battering rams. The top NFL linemen today are not only huge, but fast.  Haloti Ngata, starting defensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, weighs 335 lbs and runs the 40-year-dash in under 5 seconds. Force equals mass times speed.  When Ngata sacks a quarterback he’s hitting him with 1700 pounds of force.[4] It’s almost literally like being hit by a ton of bricks.  Much of that force hits the brain, and there’s no such thing as a helmet that can stop it.

This past May, two years after retiring as one of the NFL’s top linebackers, Junior Seau committed suicide.[2]  In interviews, his son and ex wife noted that over the past few years his personality had changed. Instead of the positive problem solver he had been, he became moody, erratic, depressed, forgetful, and emotionally detached. In the words of his son, "He would sometimes lose his temper. He would get irritable over very small things. And he would take it out on not just myself but also other people that he was close to. And I didn't understand why."

After he shot himself, Seau’s brain was examined independently by three different neurologists.  They all found the same thing—the tangled, neuron-strangling growths that indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Researchers have long known of this brain disease in boxers, but only began looking for it in football players in 2005, and so far they have found it in almost every such brain they have examined (see previous post, here).  The damage seems to come from repeated banging of the head, with or without concussions.  Repeated banging of the head is, simply, part of football as it is played at any level.

The brain change is degenerative. Once it is triggered it progresses, even after retirement from football. It results in symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease, but in far younger men, and in the other kinds of personality changes seen in Seau.  Lots of football players begin to behave erratically, become depressed or violent, lose their wives and friends because of all this, and begin to behave in all sorts of ways that lead, if not to suicide, then to early deaths by other means. There is little doubt that much of this is the result of the head banging that is an integral, unavoidable part of football.

Drugs

Football players at all levels, from high school on up, take drugs—legal or not, banned or not—to enhance their performance. They take drugs to build muscle mass, increase energy level, keep alert and focused, reduce pain so they can play through injuries, and make injuries heal faster.  All these drugs reduce life expectancy.  We can’t quantify such medication, because most of it is secret, but former players suggest that the use of such drugs is more the rule than the exception.[5] 

You can’t beat this problem with drug testing. When new tests are invented to detect one set of banned drugs, new drugs are developed to beat the tests. As long as the game is focused on winning, as long as the big money and glory depend on superb performance, players are going to latch onto whatever the new drug is that is known or believed to enhance performance without showing up in drug tests. And painkillers, which are not banned, can become real killers when players and ex-players become addicted to them.  The extreme workouts and bruising effects of the game leave many if not most football players with joint pain for the rest of their lives, which they treat with addictive painkillers.

Over-specialization

 

There was a time when football players were good all-around athletes, as were participants in other sports. For example, one of the early stars of the NFL, Morris “Red” Badgro, at 6 ft and 190 lb, in 1927 played both offense and defense for the NY Giants in football and right field for the St. Louis Browns in baseball.  He lived to be 95 years old.[4] Even when I was a kid, lots of people played more than one sport—not just in high school but also in college and sometimes in the pros. Now people train and shape their bodies to fill positions.  Kids who want to be baseball pitchers grow up just pitching, and so they throw their elbows out.  Kids growing up to be football linemen shape their bodies for that, often under the illusion that this is how they will become rich and famous.

Early retirement to a sedentary life

Athletes in general are past their prime by age 30 or not much after.  The average retirement age for NFL players is 28—much earlier even than that for those in other sports. Sixty-five percent of them leave the game with permanent injuries (this is aside from the brain damage, which can't be detected until autopsy).[6]  Many of them, despite their supposed college education, have never known anything but football.  What must it be like to feel, at age 28, that life as you know it has ended?  It’s not a feeling that is likely to lead to a happy and healthy old age.

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What will solve this problem?  Harvard’s research will not solve it.  The problem will be solved only when we, the general public, conclude that football is a barbaric sport and begin to feel revulsed by it rather than attracted to it.  We’ve already, as a society, more or less come to that conclusion concerning boxing, and boxing is dying.  Once we stop going to football games, stop watching it on television, stop donating to alma maters because of their winning football teams—then this craziness will end.

If we must watch sports rather than get off our duffs and go outside to play, let's at least focus on baseball—once known as America’s favorite pastime. Do you remember the late George Carlin’s great sketch contrasting football and baseball?

“Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!  Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium…”

“In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.”

“Football is concerned with downs—what down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups—who’s up?”

“In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error.”

“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line. …. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!”

To see the whole thing, with Carlin’s great way of presenting it, click here.

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Well, what do you think?  Is my hope that people will start boycotting football too much to expect any time soon? Do you think those Harvard researchers will find a way to protect the players without changing the game?  Would you encourage your son to go out for football and work hard at it, so he might get that great college scholarship, rather than play, like kids are meant to play? (Is that a loaded question?)  This blog is a forum for discussion, and your comments and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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Addendum added Feb. 14, 2013

A perceptive reader, who calls himself astorian, has quite appropriately asked for the evidence for the widely repeated claim that today's NFL players have a life expectancy about 20 years younger than the average male.  I've done just a little searching and, quite honestly, haven't been able to track down the original source.  It seems to be a claim accepted by many, but I don't know why.  Please see astorian's three separate comments in the discussion section, and my response to him after the third of his comments.  If you can add any light to this discussion, please do!  -Peter

Addendum added Oct. 19, 2013

As you can see in the comments section, another reader--Tyler Williams of the Economics Department at MIT--has found an apparently carefully done study showing that football players with long careers die earlier than those with shorter careers, consistent with the view that injuries from the game shorten lifespan.  However, the same paper shows that reports that football players on average die 20 years younger than other men are greatly exaggerated.  But the paper necessarily deals with football players of the past, who, on average, were much ligher and hit less hard than today's players.  -Peter

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See new book, Free to Learn.

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References

[1] Kay Lazar, Boston Globe, Jan. 29, 2013. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/01/29/nfl-players-union-and-harvard-team-landmark-study-football-injuries-and-illness/YTbnGypzJXb1VkZSr1hbdP/story.html.

[2] Mark Fainaru-Wada & Jim Avila,  ESPN.com, Jan. 11, 2013. http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/8830344/study-junior-seau-brain-shows-chronic-brain-damage-found-other-nfl-football-players

[3] Jeff Arnold. SB Nation, Oct. 11, 2012. http://www.sbnation.com/longform/2012/10/11/3484522/nfl-linemen-weight-issues

[4] Michaeleen Doucleff & Adam Cole, NPR news, Feb. 1, 2013. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/01/31/170764982/are-nfl-football-hits-getting-harder-and-more-dangerous

[5]  Akbar Gbajabiamila, NFL.com, Nov. 30, 2012.  http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000103175/article/football-players-turn-to-peds-to-get-physical-mental-edge

[6] LaMar C. Campbell, CNN, Sept. 8, 2011. http://articles.cnn.com/2011-09-08/opinion/nfl.life.after.the.game_1_nfl-player-football-career-big-time-college-football/3?_s=PM:OPINION

[7] Matt Wixon, Dallas News, Oct. 17, 2012. http://highschoolsportsblog.dallasnews.com/2012/10/the-average-weight-of-an-all-state-football-lineman-back-in-1940-about-190-pounds.html/

 

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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