According to multiple reports, the NFL sent an email to former players on Tuesday, attached to which was the results of a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health regarding the differences between the life expectancies of NFL players and non-NFL players.
Somewhat surprisingly (in light of the recent focus on head trauma), the study shows that NFL players live longer than men who didn’t play pro football.
The study encompassed former players who spent at least five years in the NFL from 1959 through 1993, covering 3,439 men.
So what does it mean? For starters, and as Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com pointed out on Tuesday, it cuts against the perception that football pro players generally die young. We tend to hear more about players who die young than those who live into their 80s and beyond. And so a sense emerges that NFL players don’t live as long as their non-football counterparts.
Still, the study says nothing about the quality of life for football players and non-football players as both groups get older. Though the process of aging plays a role in the general physical decline, the study doesn’t address whether former players have a harder time doing things that non-players can do.
And as to the topic of the moment (and possibly longer), the also study says nothing about cognitive impairments resulting from head trauma.
So why would the NFL be bringing this study, which was requested by the NFLPA, to the attention of the players? With multiple law firms aggressively encouraging former players to join the concussion lawsuits, and with plenty of former players surely conflicted as to whether they should take aim at the NFL (especially if they currently feel perfectly fine), the study could serve as a subtle nudge against biting the hand that fed the former players and their families. It surely won’t be the deciding factor for many former players, but it could help sway some of them against suing, once they realize that football hasn’t sentenced them to a premature death — and that they might actually live longer than if they had never played.
Of course, that’s perhaps the biggest flaw in all of this. Men who have the skills to play pro football are, in many ways, physically superior to the men who don’t possess those abilities. So maybe the men who are the strongest and the biggest and can run the fastest also possess the genetic makeup to survive longer than men not blessed with those traits. And maybe those men would live even longer if they’d never played football.
These are questions that are impossible to answer, but that naturally arise when attempting to make sense of a fairly superficial comparison between lifespans for members of different occupational groups.