The NFL, Concussions and Life Expectancy –the right to “informed decisions”

My wife and I met a young man on a plane recently.  He was charming and well-spoken, and as we talked we learned he plays high school football.

We also learned that no one is telling him the full truth about what he’s doing or the risks involved.

Now, I don’t have a problem with someone engaging in risky behavior — as long as doing so doesn’t put a third party at risk.  If you want to talk your sailboat out in a hurricane, go for it.  Just don’t expect anyone to come to rescue you.  They shouldn’t have to do that.  You need to accept responsibility for your actions.

However, risk-taking should be informed.  The sailor has weather reports.  If he chooses to ignore them, that’s his problem.  At least the information is available.

This young man had heard about the risk of concussions, but knew nothing about the debate over life expectancy.  He had never been knocked out of a game, and didn’t know he still could be at risk for long term damage without that happening.

What really shocked him was the length of a career in the NFL.  For players able to make the roster, the NFL says the average length of career is 6 years.  The Players Association says its 3.2 years.  Third party analysts have estimates that fall in between these numbers.  Bottom line, if you make a good college team, get drafted, and make starting spot on the team, the odds are your career will end by age 29.  Then what?

The young man was shocked.  That’s a lot of risk for not so much money.  And the risk may be understated.

First there’s the question of life expectancy.  Various reports suggest that pro football players have a life expectancy that is 20 years shorter than typical adult American males.  Various critics and apologists for the sport have been trying to discredit those numbers.  That’s where the debate over football and the health of players becomes similar to the 1970s debate over cigarettes and cancer or the current debate over global warming — the sides are more interested in “winning” the debate than in finding out what’s true.

(There’s a huge hole in the critics’ argument having to do with the relationship between life expectancy and income — see below.)

Then there’s the matter of “Health Life Expectancy”, a metric developed in Europe and calculated by the World Health Organization.  It appears that nobody in the US likes to talk about that metric, because it reflects badly on the US government and US medical community.

You see, Americans give up an average of roughly  9 years of their life to illness and injury.  That’s everyone, not just those playing football.  Life expectancy from birth for US residents is 78.8 years; Healthy Life Expectancy is 70 years.

However, sports stars are highly paid, and the life expectancy for affluent Americans is much longer than for everyone else.  A high income male in the US can expect to reach 89 years of age — and almost no one in pro sports is doing that.  Adjusted for income, sports stars actually do sacrifice life expectancy.

The truth is that a lot of pro sports stars die young, often from drug or alcohol behavior that may be concussion-related.  The ones who live longer (Frank Gifford comes to mind) have their lives affected materially by brain damage from concussions.  Their “Healthy Life” is much shorter than the number of years they lived.  Hopefully the Harvard study will tell us how much shorter Healthy Life Expectancy is for pro footballers.

So, the young man had been fed only a small fraction of the truth.  That’s  not right.  How can anyone make an intelligent decision about their future if they don’t know what the choices really mean?

College programs and the NFL have no more right to hide information on risks from prospective players than homeowners have to hide information about defects from prospective buyers.  People are entitled to know.

What they do once they are informed is up to them.  If they want to accept the risks and play, go for it.  If they decide to do something else, that’s fine as well.  I’m sure there will always be a line of candidates at the door.

[Sources:  CDC, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, NFL,]





  1. Unfortunately the drive for Division I scholarships in football, hockey and lacrosse often overrides the risk – rewards balance. Money and the promise of professional exposure frequently creates a jaded belief that “nothing bad will happen to me”. When it comes to brain injury the recovery takes time and no matter what the promise of fortune and fame might be young athletes need to give themselves time to recover and to allow their brains to heal fully before exerting themselves in the games they love. Unfortunately we have learned from Bennett Omalu MD that football players at the highest level receive hundreds and hundreds of subclinical brain injuries that place them at risk for late in life behavior changes and depression.


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