Is football dangerous?

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

It's just about football season again, and as I do each season, I turn to my favorite NFL columnist. Gregg Easterbrook writes a weekly column for - and is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution, the venerable policy think tank. He's an expert on environmental policy, space policy, theology, and football.

So, in the wake of the tragic death of Thomas Herrion, when Gregg digs in on an issue like "Is football dangerous?" I listen.

First, actual death rates have been dropping over the last 3-4 decades:

Past death rates for the 1960s and '70s were higher than today's, though far more people now play football owing to population growth and the explosion of organized sports. In 1968, for example, 36 people, mostly high school boys, died football-related deaths, the University of North Carolina has found. The number of football deaths has been falling for several reasons. One is that severe injuries to the neck and spine have dropped in the last generation owing to rule changes ("leading with the head" has been illegal since 1976) and improved equipment. Awareness of proper hydration is another factor. As recently as the '60s, many coaches forbid football players from drinking water during practice to "make them tough." Now coaches are acutely aware of hydration, especially during August.

But what about the comparison to other sports - and non-lethal injuries?

Football, as might be guessed, was found the riskiest sport for children and teens as regards minor injuries -- a football player was twice as likely to sustain a minor injury as a basketball player, and five times as likely to sustain a minor injury as a skateboarder. But for "level IV injuries," the kinds that require hospitalization, football was only somewhat more risky than other sports. The surprise in the data is that football is not the most dangerous sport when it comes to permanent disabling injuries. Basketball and baseball, the data show, both cause more permanent disabling injuries, compared to the number of participants. Soccer, which many suburban parents now extol as a "harmless" alternative to football, causes permanent disabling injuries at almost exactly the same rate as football.

And now, for the core question: Nevermind other sports and long-term trends, does football cause a dispropotionate number of deaths among those who play the game?

Combine the death rate for ages 15 to 24 and the total number of people participating in football, and you would expect about 1,750 football participants to die in the course of a year. Most die from the leading cause of death for that age -- traffic accidents. But the sad truth is that some within that group have medical problems, such as undiagnosed heart defects that will cause them to die whether they play football or not. You only hear about it if the death occurs in connection with a football game. If 1,750 people in the football-playing group are expected to die in a year, and 15 of them die in connection with a game or practice, that is tragic, but statistically not shocking -- considering what a time-consuming pursuit football is. My guess is that a time-and-risk study would show that you are safer in pads on a football field than you are in the car driving to the field. This does not diminish tragedy; only places tragedy into perspective.

Read the entire piece here - including links to the source material. (Of course, you should feel free to stop reading when digs into his usual NFC preview - unless you want to read the best football columnist in the world.)

  • afs (unverified)

    Where football is really "dangerous" is in the category of life-long debilitating injuries. There's too many kids that leave high school and have to live with injuries like blown-out knees from high school on.

    I don't have a serious problem with the risks associated with pro football. Those guys are adults and can make up their own minds as to whether they are willing to take those risks. It's the kids that limp the rest of their lives before those lives have even started that most concerns me.

  • (Show?)

    AFS - did you even read my post, nevermind the original article? I'll copy-and-paste here and make it easy for you:

    The surprise in the data is that football is not the most dangerous sport when it comes to permanent disabling injuries. Basketball and baseball, the data show, both cause more permanent disabling injuries, compared to the number of participants. Soccer, which many suburban parents now extol as a "harmless" alternative to football, causes permanent disabling injuries at almost exactly the same rate as football.
  • afs (unverified)

    Kari... sorry, but the sources for the Easterbrook article that Easterbrook is quoting are... well... weak. The Washington Post article linked in the article is about the subject of medical research studies and children. The key passage about football and permanent disabling injuries is not in the Washington Post article Easterbrook has linked....

    There is a recently published article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by the researcher mentioned in the Washington Post article. Here's the link to the abstract for that...

    There's no comparisons of the various sports injury rates in the abstract. Might be in the article, but you have to subscribe to JAMA to access that text... and that's $125 bucks for only online access, and I bluntly don't have that right now. I tried finding other sources for quotes from the article, and google news doesn't have anything but the mentions in the Washington Post and a Kaiser publication.

    The methodology is important here. The article says that football still leads for minor injuries by a significant amount. Well... what's a "minor" injury? There's many quite debilitating injuries that people don't get hospitalized for anymore. A whole lot of surgery that used to put you in traction for weeks is done in outpatient clinics now. I had both my knees operated on, and was only admitted to an outpatient surgery clinic for the procedures. How would that count in the study? Just because people aren't hospitalized doesn't mean they aren't left hobbling around after being seriously affected by an injury.

  • (Show?)

    I enjoy Easterbrook, he can be very funny, but he has a tendency towards superficial analysis. His book, "The Progress Paradox" is certainly worth reading but much less than entirely convincing.

    The more you know about a subject, the less convincing his arguments tend to be. In the current article, for example, he used one fact to seriously misrepresent Matt Millen's situation with the Detroit Lions.

    He said: "And Millen inherited a Lions squad that came within an eyelash of the playoffs, knocked out only by an improbable 54-yard field goal on the final play of the final regular-season game that year. So it's not like Millen took over a bad team. He took over a 9-7 team and fashioned it into a bad team."

    Millen took a 9-7 team that was at its peak at 9-7 with too many aging and underperforming players, some of whom had big long term contracts. The team lived with large amounts of dead cap space for Millen's first three years. Watch Millen and the Lions for the next few years and then judge how well Easterbrook represented Millen's work.

    In my experience, Easterbrook tends to cherry picks his facts to prove what he believes rather than trying to understand the facts in order to shape his beliefs.

    Maybe football is no more dangerous than other sports, but I would never conclude that based on what Easterbrook says.

  • afs (unverified)


    Easterbrook clearly make one factual error in the area of the article in question. Easterbrook said...

    "This Washington Post story summarizes medical research on the relative risks of childhood activities, including sports participation."

    The Washington Post article in question clearly does not say what he claims. There's only two mentions of sports injury risk in the whole article. They are both in passing as used as a standard to compare medical research done on kids as being safe or unsafe.

    Here's one...

    "...The product of all this work, published in last week's Journal of the American Medical Association, provides a comprehensive look at the risks in a typical kid's day that might include a ride in a car (the major risk of death for children), time on a playground or in a sporting event (the major cause of injury), and other routine activities such as bathing or swimming...."

    The only mention of football in the whole article is this...

    "One of them, the "de minimus" standard, would require that research risks not exceed the negligible risks people tolerate every day (such as when walking to work), rather than using a standard that includes such dangerous extracurricular activities as playing football."


    The only specific mention of football in the whole article says football is a dangerous extracurricular activity.

    So... Easterbrook was dead wrong on the source he named.

    That said, a little googling around using other information in the Washington Post article allowed me to find the primary source of the Washington Post story. The data Easterbrook is talking about very well might be in that article I tracked down that is in JAMA. We have no way of confirming that at this time because of the large subscription fee required to read said article. I'm hoping someone in the medical field that already subscribes to the publication will use that link and cut and paste the data in question to this thread so we can tell if Easterbrook is on point or isn't on point.

    I need to see that data to believe it. I'm going to have to waive Occam's Razor on this thread. The simplest explanation is usually the best. Easterbrook is making claims that are counter-intuitive. Easterbrook is claiming sports in which big bodies are slamming into each other causes less long term injuries than sports that do not have big bodies intentionally slamming into one another. The data may show Easterbrook's conclusions are accurate. I won't believe that till I see it in writing, and that data was not in the place Easterbrook said it would be. The only thing the article Easterbrook linked to said about football was that football is a dangerous extracurricular activity.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Perhaps the most overlooked risk in playing football is mental. No, I'm not just thinking of Gerald Ford playing too much football without wearing a helmet. But what kind of a sport is it when the basic team configuration is essentially a corporate organization chart?

    Consult George Carlin on the differences between football and baseball.

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