Naylor: Does the football grind lower a player's lifespan?

Dave Naylor
4/6/2011 5:34:18 PM
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The idea that professional football is a potentially dangerous game is not new.

Dating back at least 20 years, studies began to emerge suggesting their may be a price to be paid for all those hits, a notion that only makes sense to anyone whose every watched a game up-close and witnessed what players put themselves through on every single snap.

Ask a retired player about his daily reminders of time spent on the gridiron and the response usually includes a laundry list of achy bones and joints, especially related to knees, backs and shoulders.

That's something most who play the pro game willfully accept, whether they are being paid millions in the NFL or considerably less in Canada.

But the notion of taking actual years off one's life is something considerably different.

Which is why Winnipeg Blue Bomber Doug Brown reacted so strongly this week to information that was presented at last week's CFLPA meeting in Las Vegas, quoting the opinion of two doctors who suggested the average lifespan for a professional football player is just 55 years of age and might be as low as 51.

That goes for all players, at all positions, apparently.

"It is not a widely disseminated, downloaded or discussed fact that the average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years," wrote doctors Michael Arnold Glueck and Robert J. Cihak. "Several insurance carriers say it is 51 years."

Brown's reaction, given that he's spent 14 years (NFL and CFL) playing interior defensive line, is understandable.

But it's worth noting that the opinion of those two doctors is not recent - the article in which they made their claim is from October of 2006 - and there is considerable reason to believe it may not be based in fact.

If the average lifespan of a retired football player were in fact 55 years, then one would conclude that a good portion of the Toronto Argonauts 1983 Grey Cup champion team would be dead.

So where are Terry Greer, Paul Pearson, Jan Carinci? All very much alive. Cedric Minter, Conredge Holloway, Kelvin Pruenster, still going strong. Don Moen, Dan Ferrone, Carl Brazley, Hank Illesic, Joe Barnes, Earl Wilson? No doubt some creaky bones among them but that's all.

In fact, the Toronto Argonauts are aware of just one member of their 1983 Grey Cup champion team - former offensive lineman Tony Antunovic - who has passed away. And he died of cancer.

It's also worth noting that the CFL is not the NFL. Smaller players on a bigger field mean that collisions are generally less forceful, simply because of the laws of physics. A longer off-season, shorter training camps, and shorter practice days also are part of the story.

The CFL plays 18 regular season games, as opposed to 16 in the NFL, but overall there's little doubt that those who play American football take more of a beating.

But even among NFL players, the notion of an average age expectancy of 55 years doesn't stand up.

Let's look at the 1983 Oakland Raiders, winners of the Super Bowl in January of 1984, who by all rights should be half dead if the doctor's numbers are indeed accurate.

Jim Plunkett, Marcus Allen, Kenny King, Greg Pruitt, Cliff Branch? All alive. Dokie Williams, Malcolm Barnwell, Lester Hayes, Howie Long, Vann McElroy? All still going.

If Wikipedia can be trusted (and of matters of life and death there is reason to believe it can be) of 49 Oakland Raiders from the 1983 season, exactly two are dead. One, centre Dave Dalby, was killed when his van hit a tree. The other, Lyle Alzado, died of cancer which he attributed to his long use of steroids.

So we have two deceased Oakland Raiders and one deceased Toronto Argonaut from the 1983 football season and neither of their deaths related to head trauma or anything else they sustained on the football field. 

CFLPA president Stu Laird, who distributed the information as a sampling of what is on the internet, said he had not verified the information and did not know what it was based upon. But like most of us would, and like Doug Brown did, he understandably took a document with two doctors' names on it as being based in fact.

Do professional football players take time off their life expectancy by playing the game they love? That is indeed what a lot of research has shown, but it only makes sense that not all players, at all positions, are at the same degree of risk. And not all of that early mortality is necessarily tied to injuries – head or otherwise – that are sustained in the game.

There are two other far more banal likely sources of mortality - body type and lifestyle.

"Almost all of them carry a lot of weight and they have a hard time dropping that weight even when they don't need it any more, poor diet brought about by years of poor diet from trying to maintain that weight," said Geoff Schaadt, former head football trainer for the UCLA Bruins football program who now lives in Ottawa. "And they tend to be a higher-risk group by nature, just by virtue of their profession."

None of which means there aren't risks playing football. None of which means that issues related to concussion and heart disease an other risk factors should be ignored.

But in the rush to get a handle on what kinds of risks professional football players are actually taking, players and their associations are best to make sure all the expert opinions line up with the facts.

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