Americans watch more NFL this season after several years of ratings decline. While couches and seats fill, fields go empty. For the first time in 30 years, high school sports witnessed a participation drop last year, with football’s loss of 31,000 athletes primarily fueling the decline. Youth football more glaringly experiences a participation freefall.
Blame a cultural tic masquerading as a public health crusade. Consider a recent Concussion Legacy Foundation advertisement depicting youth football players smoking cigarettes after a game. “Tackle football is like smoking,” the ad claims in a child’s voiceover. “The younger I start, the longer I’m exposed to danger.”
Two players out of more than four million competing last season died from a football hit (the CDC attributes nearly 500,000 U.S. deaths annually to smoking). Fifty seasons prior, 36 died from collisions. Football did not become more dangerous. Society became more phobic about risk. And for whatever reason, far deadlier activities — skiing, skateboard, bicycling, climbing — avoid notice from do-gooders. Like media scare stories from killer bees to SARS to beach shark attacks, the war on football relies on a fact-challenged narrative to scare Americans.
Scientific journals tell a different story about football than newspapers and magazines.
A study of a massive cohort of high school students published two years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, “Among men graduating from high school in Wisconsin in 1957, we did not find evidence that playing football had a negative long-term association with cognitive functioning and mental health at 65 and 72 years of age.” A much smaller pilot study of South Dakota youth football players reports improved postural stability, oculomotor performance, and reaction time after a season of play, and “no significant preseason versus postseason differences in verbal memory, visual memory, or visual motor speed.” A 2012 Mayo Clinic study compared the health results of 438 midcentury high school football players in Minnesota with 140 nonplaying male peers who participated in choir, glee club, and band. “We hypothesized that athletes playing football during the decade 1946–1956 would be more likely to develop a neurodegenerative condition later in life than non-football players,” the scientists admitted. Instead, they found no differences in Alzheimer’s rates, and that “the frequency of [Parkinson’s] and [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] was lower in the football group than in the band, glee club, and choir group.”
When the NFL Players Association, persuaded by sensationalistic media accounts of early deaths for former pros, petitioned the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct a mortality study on their ranks, the results upended conventional wisdom. The pros enjoyed better health outcomes than the joes in 14 of 17 cause-of-death categories examined. The players outlived their peers. Whereas the scientists discovered in 2012 a death rate of 10 percent of the 3,439 pension-vested athletes who competed between 1959 and 1988 for five NFL seasons or more, the rate climbed to 18 percent among the peer group, i.e., football saved 291 lives. Respiratory illness felled the players at just one-fifth the rate of nonplayers, cancer killed them at two-fifths of the rate, and cardiovascular illness, despite the physical size of the pros, caused fatalities for the athletes at about a two-thirds rate. Suicide, despite over-the-top coverage of the deaths of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, afflicted the peer group at a rate more than double that of the pro group.
When I interviewed one of the four scientists conducting the NIOSH study for my 2013 book The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, he explained, “You have a very select, highly fit, almost like a Superman cohort. To be able to play football you have to be above physical average to begin with. So, in terms of cardiovascular disease — training, fitness, their medical care — it would be expected when you’re comparing them to the general population that they would have much better cardiovascular disease mortality.”
Translation: Football — running and jumping, tackling and blocking, training and dieting — is good for you. Play and watch this weekend with glee and not guilt.
Scientists employed by the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published by the Journal of the American Medical Association paint a picture of positive health outcomes for football players. An ad by a nonprofit run by a former professional wrestler depicts signing up your son for youth football as the health equivalent of dispensing cigarettes to him.
Guess which side the media finds credible.