By Ken Reed
We’ve known for decades that a lot of former NFL players end up crippled from multiple injuries and surgeries resulting from their time on the field.
Former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus has a hard time simply standing and walking due to numerous injuries he sustained while playing in the NFL. Former Oakland Raiders’ center Jim Otto has it even worse. He has had more than 70 surgeries, including 28 on a knee and multiple joint replacements. He eventually had to have his right leg amputated in 2007.
Yes, those might be rather extreme examples, but there are thousands of former players struggling with the negative health effects of their NFL careers.
And it’s not just knees, hips, backs and shoulders. We’ve known for awhile that former NFL players are at a significantly greater risk for memory and mood disorders in relation to the general male population in the United States. The number of former NFL players between the ages 30 and 49 that have received a diagnosis of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” are 19 times the national average for that age group. In particular, NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s at a 37 per cent higher rate than average. Moreover, players who have suffered multiple concussions are three times more likely to suffer depression. And, of course, former football players are at a much greater risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than the rest of society due to the concussions and repetitive subconcussive impact they endured during their careers.
One NFL health issue that hasn’t received nearly the news coverage as others is obesity.
Today, there is a large number of college and NFL players that tip the scale at greater than 300 pounds. When they retire from the NFL, many of these players find it hard to lose the excess weight, and, in fact, tend to add weight due to the decrease in physical activity they experience once their playing days are over. Some lack the motivation to continue cardio exercise after their playing days are over while others simply can’t exercise due to injuries to their legs, backs, shoulders, etc.
Offensive and defensive linemen are especially vulnerable to obesity.
“Their eating habits are hard to shed when they stop playing, and when they get obese, they get exposed to diabetes, hypertension and cardiac problems,” says Henry Buchwald, a bariatric surgeon at the University of Minnesota.
Based on a study by the Living Heart Foundation, which was founded by Archie Roberts, a former NFL quarterback and retired heart surgeon, about two-thirds of former players — not just linemen — examined since 2001, have a body mass index above 30, which is considered moderately obese. A third of those are at 35 or above, which is significantly obese.
Coaches at the high school, college and pro levels are constantly pushing football players, especially linemen, to get bigger. Retired offensive lineman Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns said that as a freshman in college he ate every few hours to gain the 40 pounds that would put his weight at the desired 290. He snarfed down burgers, frozen pizzas and bowls of ice cream to accomplish that.
“It was see food, eat food,” says Thomas.
Obesity is a very serious issue for former football players. According to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, for every 10 pounds football players gained from high school to college, or from college to the pros, the risk of heart disease rose 14% compared with players whose weight changed little during the period.
The health risks football players take in exchange for some hoped for gridiron glory are immense. More needs to be done to inform high school, college and pro football players the extent of those risks.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world, with over 150 camps in 30+ U.S. states and Canada. We discuss problems in youth sports today, including single sport specialization, the growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the high drop-out rate in competitive sports, and the growing mental health challenges young athletes are dealing with today.
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Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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