Career players in the National Football League aren’t significantly more likely to die over a 30-year period than elite-level replacements who played only a few games, according to new research. Still, though people died for many reasons, seven of the deaths were from neurodegenerative diseases — and that only happened in the career players’ brains.
The safety of professional football has been under scrutiny for the past few years, especially with reports about how repeated concussions to the head sustained while playing can cause neurological diseases like dementia. Past studies typically compare the death of NFL players with those of the general public, but that gives us less information about the health risks and benefits of professional football because people who end up in the NFL are usually exceptional to begin with. In today’s study, researchers analyzed the death of almost 4,000 NFL players who had started in the decade from 1982 to 1992 and had died by the end of 2016. These included about 3,000 regular NFL players and nearly a thousand replacement players who were hired during a three-game strike in 1987. The long-term players were slightly more likely to have died by the end of 2016 (adjusting for age and position played), but the number was not statistically significant. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Despite increasing interest in the health dangers of football, some of the information has been mixed. Some studies have found that high school football isn’t linked to brain problems later (if you played in the 1950s). Others say that 99 percent of the brains of donated NFL players show signs of head trauma, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — but people tend to donate brains when they suspect something is wrong in the first place. NFL players sustain a lot more injuries than the average population. But at the same time, physical exercise is good for health, and professional athletes generally make a lot of money and receive excellent medical care.
That’s why today’s study is interesting: instead of comparing exceptional NFL players to the public, it compares two groups of football players who are all good enough to play for the NFL in the first place. That gives us a better idea of how dangerous an NFL career really is. Though the overall numbers weren’t significant, the fact that seven of the deaths were from ALS — a progressive neurodegenerative condition — only in the career players raises more questions about the link between head trauma and brain disease.
One of the big limitations of the results is that there weren’t that many deaths to begin with in this time period, so a longer follow-up is needed. But it does add more nuance to the ongoing question of this wildly popular professional sport, and the price that players pay for it.