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The Damage to NFL Players

In response to:

The Super Bowl: The Horror & the Glory from the March 5, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Some readers of my “The Super Bowl: The Horror and the Glory” [NYR, March 5] have pointed out that the often-cited high mortality rate of NFL players has been called into question. In 2012 the NFL sent retired players a summary of a National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health study, which found that NFL players lived longer than members of the general population. But the players included in that study had a median birth year of 1950, and were only tracked through the 1988 season. A College of the Holy Cross study tracking players who played during the 1994 season showed similar results about longevity, while also showing that on average the longer a player’s career, the shorter his life span. In the last two decades the average size of NFL players, measured by body mass index, has increased considerably. As has, it would appear, the players’ speed and athleticism, though that is more difficult to quantify. But we won’t know the exact mortality rate of modern NFL players until they’re all dead.

A more damning assessment of the sport’s dangers comes from the NFL itself. After being sued by more than five thousand retired players for concealing the long-term effects of concussions, the league hired actuaries to help prepare a settlement, worth approximately $1 billion, that is now on the verge of receiving final approval by US District Judge Anita Brody. The actuaries found that 28 percent of NFL players will be diagnosed with a debilitating brain injury. They also concluded that prevalence rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia among currently retired players were “materially higher than those expected in the general population” and that players would develop these diagnoses “at notably younger ages than the general population.” Ken Belson summarized these findings in The New York Times:

Their calculations showed that players younger than 50 had an 0.8 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. For players ages 50 to 54, the rate was 1.4 percent, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. The gap between the players and the general population grows wider with increasing age.

We don’t have a full account of the damages suffered by NFL players. There has not been enough research and some of the most severe health effects evade diagnosis. In order to diagnose Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), for instance, the subject must be dead. (A Boston University School of Medicine study found that of thirty-four deceased NFL players examined, thirty-three had CTE.) As new studies are conducted, and better diagnostic tools developed, it is possible that the league’s violence will come to seem less severe. But the NFL isn’t betting on it. The settlement agreement, in which the NFL denies any wrongdoing or liability for the conditions of its retired players, is to remain in effect for the next sixty-five years.

Nathaniel Rich
New Orleans, Louisiana