The NFL on Tuesday morning sent an e-mail to about 3,200 pre-1993 players that included an update on some retirement issues. There was some normal business chatter in the e-mail, including news that former New York Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik is now interim president of the Alumni Association and Jim McMahon won the association's golf tournament. But also in the letter, obtained by me, was a bit of a blockbuster.
The letter included a four-page summary of a recent record-based study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of all retirees who played in the NFL for at least five seasons from 1959 through 1988.
The main conclusion of the NIOSH study, which it says was commissioned by the union, is that players in the study had a much lower rate of death overall compared to men in the general population. This means, on average, NFL players are actually living longer than men in the general population which contradicts a popular notion that former NFL players live into their mid-50s.
Out of the 3,439 players in the study, 334 were deceased. Based on estimates from the general population, NIOSH had anticipated 625 would be deceased.
The study is indeed propagandic, but it includes some extremely interesting data about the lives of NFL players once they leave the game. It will be up to the individual player and reader if they believe the statistics, but this is NIOSH, a part of the Centers for Disease Control, not exactly a slouch of an institution.
The information is also released at a criticial time as the death of Junior Seau and the litany of concussion lawsuits are some of the most talked about issues in sports. This is information that will be digested and debated for months in NFL circles.
This is the kind of study that two sides will see completely differently, and there are things in the study that are obvious. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating look at the post-career lives of NFL players. Some highlights:
1. Players in the study had a much lower risk of cancer-related deaths than general population. A total of 85 players died from cancer when NIOSH anticipated 146 cancer-related deaths based on general population.
2. The risk of dying from heart disease overall was lower for NFL players, but the study found some other key numbers related to ex-players and their hearts. Players who had a Body Mass Index of 30 or more during their playing years had twice the risk of death from heart disease compared to other players.
African-American players had a 69 percent higher risk of death from heart disease than white players. NIOSH says it had no explanation for this. But the explanation, anecdotally at least, is that more African-Americans seem to play on the defensive line.
One of the more startling statistical nuggets was that defensive linemen had a 42 percent higher risk of death due to heart disease compared to men in the general population. That type of increase was only among the defensive linemen. All other positions -- including offensive linemen -- had a lower risk of dying compared to general population. The NIOSH said it had no explanation for this.
Among the 41 defensive linemen who died from heart disease, eight were due to cardiomyopathy. This is a higher number when compared to general population. Cardiomyopathy is a chronic disease of the heart in which it becomes abnormally enlarged.
What you get most from the heart disease portion of the study is that being a giant in the NFL can kill you more easily once you leave the game.
This goes to the argument for HGH testing. Performance-enhacing drugs tend to make players bigger, but if they're getting bigger the science continues to show they may die younger once they depart the game.
NIOSH said it is now studying neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease among the same group of players.
Again, highly interesting stuff, and much of it rings accurate. Now begins the debate over what exactly the numbers mean.