FanDuel - WFBC

November 22, 2009

HEAD GAMES: What's killing the professional football players: Professional sports players are often viewed as overpaid and under-worked. But after the glory is gone, little is reported about the physical toll the game takes. the fifth estate investigates why professional football players have a life expectancy that is at least 20 years less than that of the general population.


The Edmonton Eskimos of the late 1970s and early 1980s were arguably the greatest football team in CFL history, winning five consecutive Grey Cups (1978-82). Players like York Hentschel, Bill Stevenson and David Boone took the team to the top, but life after football would prove to be so much harder than winning those Grey Cups. In Head Games, the fifth estate’s Bob McKeown discovers that years after retirement, the lives of these players share disturbing similarities with contemporaries who played in the NFL—failure in their personal and business lives, depression, alcoholism, even suicide.

posted by tommytrump to football at 08:23 PM - 13 comments

I never got to watch this when it aired on Friday, but I'm settlin' down to watch it right now. Thanks for linkin' it, tommy ... made my life easier tonight.

posted by Spitztengle at 09:34 PM on November 22

Seems pretty obvious that anyone that takes repeated head shots is going to suffer some long term consequenses. And, while the brain injuries noted in many football players are sad, I don't think they tell the whole story. These players, like many in the military, can get so accustomed to the team aspect of their lives, that once the careers are over they have difficulty adjusting to society.

Keep in mind, that many of these athletes never really had to think for themselves. From the time they were in middle school, they've had coaches directing their lives. Now, they're in their late 30's or 40's, and suddenly no one is telling them what to do, or looking after them. So, now you've got a guy with a little money, too much spare time, no real job skills, and everyone wants to party with them. Then, they quickly run out of the money, and then no one wants to party with them. It's a sad situation that is disaster just waiting to happen.

posted by dviking at 09:35 PM on November 22

Thanks for posting this.

The fifth estate also has an episode on Chris Benoit and pro wrestling (from February 2008). Interesting that the murders were originally reported as steroid rage. But this show talks about how steroids, amphetemines, (sometimes self-administered) pain killers, and booze compound the problems caused by concussions.

posted by Philfromhavelock at 10:21 PM on November 22

I think head related injuries, suicide, etc. account for relatively few of the deaths that drag that life expectancy # down for pro football players (that just happens to be what's in the news right now). From what I remember reading a few years back on the study, it was mostly heart related conditions.

Most of these guys, even the ones we would consider supreme athletes like the LB's and RB's, are *clinically* obese (not to mention the lineman). Their BMI is greater than the avg. human and as a result their heart is under a greater strain. So while we think they're the fittest guys in America, weighing 240lbs, even if you can run a 4:3 forty, isn't healthy for your internal organs..and it takes a toll later in life.

posted by bdaddy at 09:28 AM on November 23

@dviking: That was a very insightful comment. I never looked at it that way.

posted by smithnyiu at 11:09 AM on November 23

From the time they were in middle school, they've had coaches directing their lives.

I think you're overestimating the amount of control an NFL coach has over players' lives. These are adults, many of whom are multimillionaires. The days when a coach could treat them like college kids are long gone.

posted by rcade at 11:20 AM on November 23

I think you're overestimating the amount of control an NFL coach has over players' lives. These are adults, many of whom are multimillionaires. The days when a coach could treat them like college kids are long gone.

No, but I think that you're missing the greater point Dviking is making. While a member of an NFL team, your life is structured, from OTA's to training camp to the regular season. It's a very focused, goal oriented, career and life.

And then, after playing football for 15 or 16 years if not longer (if one includes high school and college), you need to reinvent yourself. With a lot of money in many cases, to be sure. But it must be very difficult for so many of these players (and not just football players) to find a new career and life after professional sports.

This is not to downplay the head injuries that occur. But it is another factor that athletes must struggle with.

posted by cjets at 02:01 PM on November 23

Another factor to consider would be that many professional athletes are extremely driven, type-A personalities, otherwise they wouldn't have got where they have.

After being top of your profession, retirement in your 30s probably doesn't have much going for it. What do you do with the rest of your life? A life of leisure with lots of money might sound great to us workers, but if you're slightly egotistic, a bit selfish and need to dominate others and 'win' all the time...*

*Maybe some exagerration for effect.

posted by owlhouse at 03:17 PM on November 23

For what it's worth I based my comments on conversations I've had with retired MN Viking, Twins and TX Ranger players. Over the years I've had the opportunity to be involved with numerous charity functions, some of which were also sponsored by the teams. Some of the charities were geared around helping former players. One conversation I remember vividly was with Bill Brown and the late Bob Allison.

At the time there had been a couple cases of former players that had run into trouble with the law...DWI's, bounced checks, fraud, etc. Nothing violent, but it still seemed odd to me that some fairly big name former players were involved. Both Brown and Allison did have business careers after playing ball, but both said that most players had no idea what to do with themselves. They spoke of the fraternal type bond that players have, and how once retired players miss that sense of being. Brown spoke at length about how shocking it can be to go from the current player that has everybody wanting to be your friend, to the former player that has some people wanting to be your friend, to the out of work guy that no one wants around. These guys were old school, and things have probably changed, but I'm not sure how much. Seems like we're hearing about a troubled former athlete on a weekly basis.

posted by dviking at 04:11 PM on November 23

A little late to the party, but at least they came.

posted by Drood at 04:33 PM on November 23

Well, I'm sure for many of the pedigree athletes - you know, the ones that have been labelled as pro-material from a very young age, probably are affected to the extent that dviking and others are impliing. But a lot of pro athletes really had to work their way from complete anonymity to get to a successful pro career. They are not coddled, handled or spoon fed like others. So the transition from nobody to somebody to nobody is not a transition that would be scary. I know a couple ex-pros. They were never famous like a star and thus they don't have a problem being a schmo like the rest of us.

I think that it's clear - very clear - that football is different. The physical toll is much greater and the physiological effects are more pronounced.

The rest is window dressing.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 05:48 PM on November 23

Weedy, I'm sure many did have to work very hard for what they got, and because of it were better off later on. There are also those that have great support groups (family, friends, etc.) that don't fall into what I was talking about. Heck, I even mentioned a couple that developed solid careers after sports. The point was, many players don't know what life beyond sports is all about, and they struggle to move on. It's not just about sports, the same phenomenon is seen in the military, and even in prisoners. Their structured life, and it's set social order, is all they know. They struggle to move on.

Here's a great article on this subject. Former Packer, Ken Ruettgers lists what players lose at retirement

Loss of celebrity status. Instant name recognition vanishes. Income is slashed. Such perks as free meals and support staff end.

What usually fills this void, Ruettgers said, are self-doubt, fear and a lack of direction

posted by dviking at 07:29 PM on November 23

So if sport is an analogy for war, we're talking about post traumatic stress disorder. And if we grade sports according to their similarity to warfare, football's pretty high up the list, so the impact psychologically is likely to be greater than in many other sports.

Sport at any seriously competitive level definitely creates mental problems - requires you to think in a way that is good for sport but bad for "real" life (whatever that is). But I'm with Weedy - if you wallop someone on the head enough times, it's going to cause problems.

Seinfeld'll tell you about it.

posted by JJ at 05:55 AM on November 24

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