Linebacker Chris Borland retired from the NFL at 24 this week.
“I just thought to myself,” the 49ers linebacker told ESPN’s Outside the Lines, “’What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and know about the dangers?'”
Borland cited Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, two defensive backs who took their own lives, as cautionary tales. “When people in your chosen profession shoot themselves in the chest,” Borland explained to ESPN, “it causes you to be taken aback.”
The reality that NFL players are far less likely to commit suicide than men in society takes fans aback. We know that NFL players boast dramatically lower suicide rates than the guys who watch them because Chris Borland’s union, suspecting otherwise, petitioned scientists employed by the federal government to conduct a mortality study, which found a suicide rate among NFL players less than half the rate for those outside of the game.
Get that? Men outside of the NFL kill themselves at more than double the clip as those playing the game at the highest level. The suicide rate for Major League Baseball players actually eclipses the rate for NFL athletes (so does their mortality rate). Yet, if an outfielder cited baseball causing suicide as a reason for retiring from the game after his rookie season, the media would immediately, and correctly, point out the flaws in his bizarre “facts” and non sequitur logic. Why aren’t journalists correcting Borland’s inference that suicide results from football?
Journalists, particularly the Fainaru brothers who wrote ESPN’s piece on Borland’s retirement and a book sensationalizing the dangers of football that they push in the same article, have skin in the game. As Breitbart Sports pointed out when rebutting the false suicide contention, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time all have repeated a made-up statistic that NFL players kill themselves at six times the national average. Beyond the NIOSH study, how do we know the statistic rests on nothing? Because Breitbart Sports tracked down its source, GamesOver.org. The group’s leader conceded that no study had been conducted, confessed ignorance to how he came up with the number, and promptly retracted the statistic. It would be nice if Frank Bruni at the New York Times, Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post, and Doug Glanville at Time showed such integrity in admitting their mistake in reporting a baseless statistic as fact.
Borland cites wanting to live a long and healthy life as a reason for retiring at 24. But again, NFL players tend to live longer, healthier lives than their peers outside of the game. When the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at 3,439 NFL retirees who played five or more seasons from 1959 to 1988, they discovered a mortality rate of 10 percent for the players versus 18 percent for men in society. This means 291 people lived who the actuarial tables tell us would have been dead if they had merely come from America instead of come out of America’s Game. The athletes enjoyed dramatically lower death rates for cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes. In fact, in 14 of 17 common killers examined the the pros beat the Joes.
When I spoke to one of the scientists conducting the study, he called the players a “superman cohort.” Chis Borland chased running backs for a living. He lifted weights and ran on most days during the offseason. Football instilled discipline with regard to diet and lifestyle choices. It gave him access to quality health care. For these and a million other reasons, men in the NFL tend to live longer, healthier lives than men outside of the game. This is common sense. This is also science.
Surely, the game plays with many “dangers,” as Borland put it. Watching Joe Namath walk indicates as much. But the worst dangers have declined considerably since he played. During the 1960s, an average of 23 athletes died every season from football hits. About four players a year now die from football hits. To put this into perspective, skateboarding, skiing, and bicycling collisions all cause exponentially more deaths annually than football collisions. Every human activity carries some degree of risk. Football carries less risk than it once did and less risk than other activities in which boys partake. It surely carries less risk than inactivity, an increasingly popular activity.
Concussions—which, due in part to the dramatic decline in catastrophic injuries leading to death, now play as a great concern of parents and coaches—have declined significantly in Chris Borland’s league. The NFL dared to point this out in the aftermath of the linebacker’s decision:
We respect Chris Borland’s decision and wish him all the best. Playing any sport is a personal decision. By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority.
Naturally, guardians of the narrative slammed the NFL’s accurate information.
Chris Borland deserves to make his own decisions about his health without second guessing. The 3.5 million Americans who opt to play the game that Borland quit similarly deserve to make their own decisions without second guessing.
Instead, journalists cheering on Borland’s decision boo the choice of millions of parents and kids. The Fourth Estate floods them with misinformation.
“For all players who play five or more years,” George Will deluded in his column, “life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less.” But NIOSH found 334 deaths among 3,439 NFL retirees when prevailing societal rates informed them they would find, all things being equal, 625. “When you look at two teams playing football on a field,” Malcolm Gladwell fibbed to a CSPAN audience, “chances are that someone on that field is going to die a horrible death well before their time because of playing football.” But NIOSH found just 12 instances of brain diseases directly killing NFL players out of nearly 3,500 retirees examined. “The suicide rate among ex-NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org,” Sally Jenkins misled at the Washington Post. But GamesOver.org retracted that statistic and NIOSH showed that NFL players don’t kill themselves all that often. Why hasn’t Jenkins retracted her claim?
One hopes Chris Borland lives a long, healthy life in retirement from the gridiron. Some of America’s best scientists, working for the federal government, tell us after looking at every pension-vested NFL player over three decades that chances are he would have lived a long, healthy life had he continued with his career.