Friday, December 18, 2009

Football, concussions, and longevity

Over at the Overcoming Bias blog, Robin Hanson notes that "The average NFL player plays just 3.52 seasons and loses two to three years off his life expectancy for every season played," and offers the following comment:
If true, this is an amazingly huge health harm, especially considering how much we regulate health harms in most areas. It is far beyond the risk we’ll allow people to take on most jobs, even soldiers or astronauts. And it is far beyond the risk we’d let customers accept in a consumer product... [W]hy do we regulate other health harms so strictly, yet so eagerly watch this decimation?
The comments are worth reading, too. Some observe that boxing and MMA are no less violent than football, and that may be true--I haven't seen a side-by-side comparison--but it's also the case that thousands more Americans play football than those other sports.

In this same vein, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article earlier this year in which he compared the morality of dog fighting to that of watching football. Gladwell's piece focused on the frequency and severity of head injuries, and included this striking passage:
“The first concussion was during preseason. The team was doing two-a-days,” he said, referring to the habit of practicing in both the morning and the evening in the preseason. “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning.
Going forward, I think the sport's long-term viability--economically and otherwise--hinges on its ability to address these health risks. If football cannot make the necessary safety adjustments that auto racing, for instance, has made in the last two decades, then I could envision a growing disgust among the fan base and a slow waning of interest in mainstream America.

A less-discussed feature of this story concerns how salaries might rise for what increasingly appears to be "hazard" work. For a variety of reasons, NFL owners currently flex more economic muscle than their counterparts in other leagues, and have managed to keep salaries and salary caps comparatively low. And perhaps these health risks are fairly factored into today's salaries, though that seems unlikely in the absence of widespread agreement that there's a big problem. So as the evidence mounts that players are literally sacrificing many years of their lives and many more quality years of post-football living--with early-onset dementia and Alzheimers--I'd guess that agents and the union will justifiably demand greater compensation for those future losses.

Congress, for its part, is preparing to hold a second round of hearings on concussions in football.


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