Every time I see new statistics regarding concussions and the health of former professional football players, I wonder how much longer this sport can survive. History indicates that most sports have shelf lives, and it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before football is simply deemed too violent for mainstream culture.

My pal Andrew Bucholtz from The 55-Yard Line passes on a few jarring tidbits on concussions among professional football players, by way of a Winnipeg Free Press column penned by CFL defensive lineman Doug Brown. A few lowlites:

  • While attending the CFLPA’s AGM in Las Vegas, players were presented with a UNC study that left them shook. The excerpt that got to Brown: ”Repeatedly concussed NFL players had five times the rate of mild cognitive impairment (pre-Alzheimer’s) than the average population … retired NFL football players suffer from Alzheimer’s disease at a 37 per cent higher rate than average.”
  • Brown then relayed an under-the-radar figure from a now-famous Time Magazine piece entitled The Most Dangerous Game: “Men between the ages of 30 and 49 have a one in a thousand chance of being diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or another memory related disease,” according to the author, Sean Gregory. “An NFL retiree has a one in fifty-three chance of receiving the same diagnosis.”
  • Last but certainly not least, Brown said the presenters cited a study by Michael Glueck M.D. and Robert Cihak M.D., who apparently found that “the average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years,” adding that “several insurance carriers say it is 51 years.”

That number is about 20 percent below the world average, and about equal to the life expectancy of people from third-world countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. As Bucholtz points out, the average life expectancy in Canada is just over 80. In the United States, it’s just under 80. That means that, if the above report is accurate, NFL players can expect to lose about 25 years as a result of their profession.

“I don’t have any children at the moment,” wrote Brown, “but if I do end up having a son I can honestly tell you I’m not sure right now whether he should play football and whether I would even encourage him to.”

I’m thinking the exact same thing. It scares me that, by all indications, fame and fortune are the only things that separate football players from coal miners. And that’s why I fear for the long-term future of pro football

Fifteen centuries ago, fans paid good money to watch gladiators fight, often to the death, at arenas and ampitheatres throughout the Roman Republic and Empire. Society eventually grew intolerant and the sport died. Bullfighting is quickly becoming obsolete, even in Spain. Professional mixed martial arts instituted myriad safety regulations before it became mainstream. A hundred years ago, when football players were dying on the field left and right, the football world adapted by eliminating the flying wedge, introducing the forward pass and generally improving equipment. If not for those changes, football, too, would likely be dead.

It’s important for fans to understand that sports — contact sports in particular — have to evolve in order to survive. That’s why the NFL continues to make significant changes to the rulebook every year in an attempt to curb violent collisions and, by extension, injuries. As more information like this hits newsstands, scaring the hell out of parents of potential future football and hockey stars, the sports have to continue to take seemingly drastic measures to ensure the long-term health of the games and their participants.

And it’s stuff like this that should cause us to think twice before deriding pro athletes for the money they make. There are few jobs in the country that lead to such tragic ends.

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