We all know the NFL is in serious trouble as more evidence comes out about the relationship between playing professional football and brain damage in later life. But what we know may not be true:
Dr. Everett Lehman, part of a team of government scientists who studied mortality rates for NFL retirees at the behest of the players’ union, discovered that the pros live longer than their male counterparts outside of the NFL. The scientists looked at more than 3,000 pension-vested NFL retirees and expected 625 deaths. They found only 334. “There has been this perception over a number of years of people dying at 55 on the average,” Dr. Lehman told me. “It’s just based on a faulty understanding of statistics.”
The scientists also learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, NFL players commit suicide at a dramatically lower rate than the general male population. The suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters don’t represent a trend but outliers that attract massive attention, and thereby massively distort the public’s perception. More typical was the death of Pat Summerall, who passed away quietly last week at 82 after a productive post-career career.
Indeed, a 2009 study by University of Michigan researchers reported that NFL retirees are far more likely to own a home, possess a college degree, and enjoy health insurance than their peers who never played in the league. The myth of the broke and broken-down athlete is just that: a myth. A few surely struggle after competition ceases; most apply their competitive natures to new endeavors.
It’s true that skill-position players on rosters for five or more years in the NFL faced elevated levels of Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Parkinson’s disease deaths. But some perspective is in order. Of the 3,439 retired athletes studied by Lehman’s group, less than a dozen succumbed to deaths directly attributable to these neurodegenerative killers. Had Parkinson’s killed one rather than the two retirees it did kill, for example, its rate would have been lower among players than among the general population.
It’s quite possible the NFL is concerned (and ensuring that it is seen to be concerned) primarily because of the need to address public perceptions, rather than as a defensive move against future or ongoing legal challenges.