“Pro football is like nuclear warfare.” said Frank Gifford, “There are no winners, only survivors.” A statement that can be supported by a walk through a NFL training room after a game, and there see players in varying degrees of pain and injury. The hits that were earlier shrugged off on the field of play in typical machismo style are now grudgingly acknowledged. Some health hazards of a NFL player can be treated with a visit to the whirlpool bath, but others can end a career.
Concussions are inevitable for players in the NFL, and have taken on a more sinister attribute within the last decade. Postmortem examinations performed on deceased former NFL players – the most prominent being Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers – links repeated head injuries to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The brain of a person diagnosed with CTE resembles the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
CTE is a disease which was until recently associated primarily with the boxing profession, and scientifically known as pugilistica dementia, punch-drunk syndrome , and Parkinson’s syndrome. CTE, results from multiple blows to the head causing brain damage. It is not known if CTE develops from head injuries sustained on over an extended period, or of a shorter duration.
Two NFL players – Mike Webster, and Chris Henry – were both victims of CTE. The NFL careers of Webster, and Henry were diametrically opposed. Webster played football for sixteen years in the NFL as a center on the offensive line receiving countless blows to the head. However, Henry’s NFL career lasted only five years as a wide receiver playing in a position that usually put him downfield away from intense line action. Webster was 50 years old at the time of his death, and Henry was 26 years when he died. Medical examiners issued the same CTE pronouncement based on a different set of circumstances, for the two deceased NFL players. Medical researchers are baffled by the results, and the NFL has donated $1 million to Boston University School of Medicine to fund further CTE research.
The use of anabolic steroids is not only a health hazard for NFL football players, but all professional (and nonprofessional) sports athletes. For the desire to be the best some players will use steroids to gain an advantage, and in doing so are awarded lucrative contracts, and incentive-driven player bonuses. A by-product of steroids is that player performance is artificially elevated above the athlete who plays within the rules, and it is reflected in increased player stats. But with the use of steroids there comes a heavy price; unpredictable mood swings, depression, paranoia, and all for a career that could end noted with the ignoble asterisk, “used steroids.”
Many NFL players are encouraged to put on extra pounds, and weight limits have steadily increased particularly for offensive and defensive linemen. It is not uncommon for a lineman to weigh in excess of 300 pounds. But, NFL players are not exempt from the health hazards associated with obesity that the rest of the public is subject to, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and shorter life spans with no stats to prove that with increased weight comes better performance.
Longer NFL season
Since the 1960’s the length of a regular NFL football season has increased from twelve to sixteen, and now owners have proposed that the regular football season be increased to eighteen games while eliminating two preseason games. The health hazards of this proposal are obvious as the battering players take during a sixteen game season is extended to two more games. Then consider a team that makes the playoff as the 6th seed wildcard will have to play twenty-two games to win the Super Bowl. NFL players today are bigger and faster which ensures that a tackle will have both velocity and force upon the body at impact exacting an immeasurable toll upon the human body.
There are inherent health hazards that come with playing football in the NFL, and there are health hazards the player chooses to take on to prolong a career, for increased financial gain, or the adulation of fans. But, is society strengthened or weakened by witnessing the gradual wearing down of another human being for entertainment.
On 9/24/2002, Mike Webster died brain damaged at the age of 50 years old. Webster slept at times in train stations, or in the back of his truck at times stunning himself to into unconsciousness with a taser gun to escape the pain that wracked his body, the last remnant of his years of playing football in the National Football League.