Here is one of the more intriguing headlines of Super Bowl week: “Is the National Football League dying”?
Probably not, but too many of its former players are dying young, and for reasons that may be preventable. Many people are concerned about growing evidence of brain injury from the violence of the game. But that’s just part of the story.
Linemen are too heavy. Their excessive weight is a danger to running backs now and to their own health after they hang up the cleats.
Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard raised the issue when he was quoted as predicting the demise of pro football, in part because of its violence, but mostly because of the way the rule makers are responding to that violence. “I hope I’m wrong,” he added, “but I just believe one day there’s going to be a death that takes place on the field because of the direction we’re going.”
President Obama weighed in on football safety, too, but in a less dire way. “I think that those of us who love the sport, he said in an interview with the New Republic, “are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”
Both Pollard and the President were alluding to head trauma – a growing concern for athletes and others exposed to repeated brain injury.
Last month, the New York Times summarized a number of studies related to football and brain injury. One concluded that 60% of NFL players had a least one concussion during their football playing years, and 26% had 3 or more.
Another was published in the Journal Brain in December 2012. Researchers examined the brains of eighty-five deceased individuals who were subjected to repeated minor head trauma during their lives. They looked for evidence of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
They found that 80 percent of the brains (or 68 of the 85) showed evidence of CTE.
Thirty-five were from former professional football players, all but one who played in the NFL. Thirty-four of those showed signs of CTE. The brains from those who were hit most during the game – linemen and running backs – were most likely to have it.
CTE is clearly a significant health problem for NFL veterans, but it isn’t the only one.
We learned recently that the brain of former player Junior Seau showed evidence of CTE at the time he took his life in the spring of 2012.
His death stood out in part because he was the 8th player from the 1994 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team to die young. I wrote about this in a column last year.
But among the Chargers who died young, Chris Mims was reported to have weighed 468 pounds (170 pounds over his playing weight) when he died at the age of 38 of heart disease. Lew Bush, who played at 245 pounds, died of a heart attack when he was 42. Shaun Lee was reported to be over his 300 pound playing weight and have diabetes when he died at age 44.
So it is not just the hard hits. Weight-related chronic disease is also a significant health problem for many football players.
And this year’s Super Bowl teams are heavier than ever, putting them at greater risk than ever.
The linemen on Pollard’s Ravens team weigh in at an average of 308 pounds. Without the tight ends, their average weight is 318.
The San Francisco 49ers linemen average 296 pounds. Without the tight ends, their average weight grows to 311.
To put this in some context, the 1994 Chargers linemen were thin by comparison, weighing in at 289 pounds. And the linemen (absent tight ends) from last year’s Super Bowl teams averaged 306 pounds – 12 pounds less than the Ravens this year.
But the CTE and obesity-related disease we see today occurs among players who played at the time of the 1994 Chargers, not the 2012 Ravens and 49ers.
The eleven running backs on the Ravens and 49ers weigh an average of 222 pounds. And that’s only because 260 pound Ravens fullback Vonta Leach is one of them.
Without Leach, they average 217 pounds – almost 100 pounds lighter than the linemen who block for, and tackle, them.
So, among rules and equipment changes, why doesn’t the NFL also introduce an upper weight limit for players in the game?
Then maybe we wouldn’t have to read so many obituaries of great athletes who die young.
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