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NFL Draft: The myth of the broken-down player

NFL Draft: The myth of the broken-down player

Radio City Music Hall hosts the NFL Draft this weekend. The top pick, whether Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel or Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher, stands to gain upwards of $20 million over the next few years.

Most people regard becoming a millionaire at twenty-one as hitting the jackpot. But to lawyers seeking a billion-dollar mother lode from the NFL, the young athletes would be better off turning down the payday.

“Tobacco companies for years tried to shoot down any research that showed a causal link between smoking and cancer,” attorney Mike McGlamry, who has filed six lawsuits against the league, tells ESPN. “And very similarly with the NFL, it essentially spent most of its time trying to downplay the independent research out there that showed that causal link between head injuries and football and long term cognitive issues.”

Lawyers aren’t the only ones piling on the sport. George Will likens football to gladiatorial contests, in which spectators will not for long enjoy “watching people sacrificed for their entertainment with a kind of violence that is unseemly.” Malcolm Gladwell compares the NFL to dog fighting. Even the president of the United States weighed in by speculating that he might not allow a son to play football if he had a boy.

Like most emotional bystanders caught up in any hype, they don’t have science on their side. Chances are that Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, West Virginia’s Geno Smith, and other first-round selections will lead healthier, wealthier, and wiser lives because of football.

Dr. Everett Lehman, part of a team of government scientists who studied mortality rates for NFL retirees at the behest of the players’ union, discovered that the pros live longer than their male counterparts outside of the NFL. The scientists looked at more than 3,000 pension-vested NFL retirees and expected 625 deaths. They found only 334. “There has been this perception over a number of years of people dying at 55 on the average,” Dr. Lehman told me. “It’s just based on a faulty understanding of statistics.”

The scientists also learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, NFL players commit suicide at a dramatically lower rate than the general male population. The suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters don’t represent a trend but outliers that attract massive attention, and thereby massively distort the public’s perception. More typical was the death of Pat Summerall, who passed away quietly last week at 82 after a productive post-career career.

Indeed, a 2009 study by University of Michigan researchers reported that NFL retirees are far more likely to own a home, possess a college degree, and enjoy health insurance than their peers who never played in the league. The myth of the broke and broken-down athlete is just that: a myth. A few surely struggle after competition ceases; most apply their competitive natures to new endeavors.

It’s true that skill-position players on rosters for five or more years in the NFL faced elevated levels of Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Parkinson’s disease deaths. But some perspective is in order. Of the 3,439 retired athletes studied by Lehman’s group, less than a dozen succumbed to deaths directly attributable to these neurodegenerative killers. Had Parkinson’s killed one rather than the two retirees it did kill, for example, its rate would have been lower among players than among the general population.

JaMarcus Russell, Vernon Gholston, and Ryan Leaf weren’t draft-day busts, according to the logic of the War on Football. They hit the jackpot by avoiding brain damage wrought by lengthy NFL careers. Thankfully, very few players die from neurological diseases and very many avoid cancer, heart disease, and other common killers because of the healthy dietary and exercise habits instilled as a result of their dedication to football.

So be cheerful to cheer on the young men greeted at the podium by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with handshake and a hat. That moment not only symbolizes the fulfillment of their dreams, but it also means that they are more apt to lead a wealthier and healthier life than other men their age.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, forthcoming this summer from Regnery.

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