Today millions of Americans will gather around televisions, partying and cheering the spectacle of young men maiming and killing themselves for our entertainment pleasure during America’s most popular sporting event, the Super Bowl. An unknown but significant number of those athletes, we now know, are likely to be unable to recognize family members by the time they are 45, and several may take their own lives in despair. Nonetheless, the official position of the National Football league is that all is well, and Commissioner Roger Goodell was touring the Sunday morning news shows to put out the propaganda claim that pro football is good for everyone, even the players who accumulate concussions like the rest of us collect aggravation.
Presumably to appeal to the large proportion of the Super Bowl audience who know little about the sport, as well as the gullible fans who do, Goodell told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace (who, if he had the knowledge, wit and integrity, should have stopped him and protested) in response to Wallace’s question about the NFL’s ongoing concussion scandal, that NFL players live longer and are on the whole healthier throughout their lives than the general population.
This is deception, and intentionally misleading.
Goodell is taking advantage of the fact that all the measures of the mortality of pro football players are flawed, which is why last year the NFL Players Union commissioned Harvard to do a 100 million dollar study of the health of ex-players and how to improve it. The union claims that the average age of death of an ex-NFL player is 57 years, which would directly contradict Goodell’s claim. This figure is supported by a 2011 study by the University of North Carolina, as well as insurance company actuarial statistics.
The figure, however, seems statistically unlikely. Measuring the life expectancy of any group of adult men, even those engaged in risky behavior, will yield an average life expectancy that is better than the general population. Why? Because men in the general population die as infants, children, young adults, and before they would be old enough to play football. Thus the NFL and defenders of the brutal game continue to promote the 2012 study that found that NFL players outlive the general population. If accurate—and the players find the study difficult to believe, as do I—it can be argued that this study is also flawed. It compares apples—strong, affluent, college educated upper-middle class men—to oranges–everyone else, including the poor, unemployed, uneducated and poorly nourished. Attempting to get around this problem, one blogger compared the deaths of NFL players to other celebrities whose death notices were prominently published. His conclusion: there was no denying the fact that pro football players appeared to die sooner that non-football players from the same general class, but there was no justification to believethe mid-fifties mortality figure.
So do we know how much playing pro football lowers life expectancy, or even if it does? No….and neither does Roger Goodell. The studies are in conflict. However, we do know that a disproportionate number of the players who may live well into their golden years will do so unable to think clearly, remember their children’s names, or care for themselves, because they accepted big paychecks to allow their brains to be permanently bruised and catastrophically damaged. I don’t call that living or being healthy, and Goodell shouldn’t pretend that it is, or cite as fact what is a disputed contention at best.
Playing pro football isn’t good for you, and if the studies ultimately prove that ex-NFL players are really likely continue breathing as long as the rest of us despite their brain injuries, that just helps us understand why they have been killing themselves.