Would half of all Americans discourage kids from skateboarding, skiing, swimming, or bike riding? These otherwise healthy activities all claim exponentially more lives annually than football.
Fifty percent of Americans would not want a young son to play football, according to a new poll by Bloomberg Politics. The percentage opposing the game for boys skews higher for women, the wealthy, Democrats, and older Americans.
The results reflect a perception, fostered by a lawsuit filed against the NFL by former players, financially-vested celebrity doctors more comfortable in front of cameras than behind microscopes, and even negative comments by the president, that the rewards of football fall short of the risks. Like complaints of rising crime when the rate has dramatically declined in recent decades, the uproar over football’s dangers coincide with a time of unprecedented player safety.
The game, played by nearly four million competitors deeming it a healthy outlet for aggression, witnessed an average of 4.2 collision deaths per year over the last decade. In the 1960s, football hits killed about 23 players a season. Better helmets, rules, and coaching have decreased collision deaths by more than 80 percent.
The science on health outcomes off the field also tell an overwhelmingly positive story. Petitioned by the NFL Players Association to conduct a mortality study because of claims that players die young, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that NFL veterans actually outlive their peers outside of the game. NIOSH found an 18 percent death rate for comparable men in society. For the 3,439 athletes who competed in the league between 1959 and 1988, NIOSH found a 10 percent death rate. The players enjoyed lower rates of heart disease, cancer, respiratory illness, diabetes, suicide, and in ten of the twelve remaining categories examined.
The men who run around a field experience longer, healthier lives than the men who sit and watch them. Who knew?
Even in matters of neurological health, the area one might reasonably expect the collision-sport athletes to fall short of their peers, studies show mixed outcomes. The NIOSH study found 12 deaths from neurological and nervous system diseases among the 3,439 pros. They expected to find about ten based on prevailing rates. When the Mayo Clinic looked at hundreds of midcentury high school players, they hypothesized that they would find elevated rates of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Lou Gehrig’s diseases. They didn’t. In fact, when compared to the control group–members of the band, glee club, and choir–the football players enjoyed slightly improved outcomes on Parkinson’s and ALS.
The paranoia over football’s effect on the health of boys, only about 1 in 25 of whom will play beyond high school in levels in which the game gets bigger, faster, stronger, ironically undermines the health of boys. The primary medical problem afflicting kids involves bellies, not brains. Obesity marked one in twenty adolescents in 1980. It weighs down more than one in five today.
More so than any other sport, football, because of the rewards it provides bulk and brawn, remains the most effective way to get big boys out of their food and onto a field. High school football saw participation declines in four of the last five years. Youth football’s numbers crisis yields teams unable to field scrub squads at practice and leagues contracting. Too often, the alternative to playing football isn’t soccer but video games and television.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines hasn’t yet devoted coverage to the painful deaths of fiftysomething-year-old non-athlete men from diabetes or respiratory illness or some other malady the way they have singled out any former NFL player suffering from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s that they can get their cameras on. The New York Times has yet to analyze the health costs to the generation led by phobic parents from the football field the way they have to concussions at pee-wee games among those permitted to participate. So, naturally, fifty percent of Americans decry the highlighted dangers of the gridiron activity rather than the downplayed dangers of the inactivity.
The greatest risk to kids isn’t playing football but playing nothing.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.