Do Career NFL Players Have a Higher Risk of Death?



Media advisory: To contact corresponding author Atheendar S. Venkataramani, M.D., Ph.D., email Katie Delach at The full study is available on the For The Media website.

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Bottom Line: Career players in the National Football League (NFL) had slightly higher rates of death that were not statistically different from those of replacement players who made only a few appearances during a short league strike in the 1980s.

Why The Research Is Interesting: Playing football may be potentially harmful for several reasons, including repeated head trauma that may result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Previous studies examining the rate of death in retired NFL players have been limited by comparisons with the general population because a better comparison group would be individuals with similar athletic attributes and lifestyles.

Who and When: 3,812 retired players who started in the NFL from 1982 to 1992, including 2,933 regular NFL players and 897 replacement players hired temporarily to play during a three-game strike in 1987

What (Study Measures): Participation in the NFL as a career or replacement player (exposures); death from any cause by December 31, 2016 (outcome)

How (Study Design): This was an observational study. Researchers were not intervening for purposes of the study and cannot control all the natural differences that could explain the study findings.

Authors: Atheendar S. Venkataramani, M.D., Ph.D., Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and coauthors

Results: A slightly higher, but not statistically significant, difference in long-term risk of death was associated with a playing career in the NFL compared with a short stint as a replacement player during a league strike. Seven career players died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) compared to no replacement players.

Study Limitations: Estimates were based on a small number of deaths so the analysis may not detect meaningful associations; additional analyses with longer-term follow-up may be helpful.

Study Conclusions:


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