The League

Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

Dying From Football


So, Carson Palmer startled the football world by saying that someone was going to die in the NFL. I'm surprised only that anyone would be startled by the comment. Mike Utley and Dennis Bird are quadriplegics; the difference between paralysis and death is, literally, a matter of a fraction of an inch at the point of impact.

This is such a non-issue, except that someone made it an issue and responses are apparently now required. Players die every year from football injuries. To be precise, seven died in 2008, up from four in 2007, after just one in 2006. Between 1990 and 2008, an average of 4.2 died each season. Another 13 died in 2008 indirectly from football (heart failure, heat stroke, and the like). The National Center for Catastrophic Research at the University of North Carolina tracks these deaths and has data back to 1931.

All seven deaths in 2008 were of high school athletes. The last college player to die was in 2002. The NCCR lists six "direct" deaths among professionals or semi-professionals since 1966, along with seven "indirect" ones. They must be mostly semi-pros. I can think of only one NFL player to die during a game: Detroit's Chuck Hughes, from a heart attack in 1971. (My Chiefs played Detroit the following week, and I remember feeling weird, knowing that someone had died on the field just a few days earlier.) Korey Stringer's death from heat prostration in 2001 would be "indirect."

More high school players die because there are more of them, but also presumably because they are not as physically developed to withstand hard blows. That was the claim when deaths in football first became a concern -- over 100 years ago. But Palmer's comment points to the opposite problem: players are now "so big, so fast, so explosive" that a collision is eventually bound to be fatal. Utley and Bird were the victims of "freak" accidents. Darryl Stingley died from complications from his quadriplegia, that resulted not from a freak play but from a vicious (but legal) hit. He was 55; the hit took almost 30 years to kill him.

The game is violent. On balance, improved equipment has probably made it more dangerous. The invention of the plastic suspension helmet, back in 1939, was like the boxing gloves mandated by the Queensbury Rules which protected the knuckles so that they could smash the opponent's face without breaking.

The head has always been the most vulnerable body part in football (along with the neck and spine); the hard-shell suspension helmet made it also the most lethal weapon. Rules, like the ban on spearing, can make play safer. But "freak" plays happen, and when they happen to men with the size, speed, and strength of today's NFL players, the consequences can be grim. Hasn't everyone been reading about the role of concussions in several early deaths, or the laments of still-living former players with their permanent disabilities? It's a tad strange that the game would seem more dangerous if someone died instantly instead of slowly.

We're not talking about a national epidemic here. Football obvious kills far fewer young men than auto crashes, binge drinking and any number of other activities; I leave it to actuaries to calculate the relative likelihood. Football deaths shock us more, because they happen in a game. But it is also necessary to acknowledge that what kills and maims in football is just the underside of what makes NFL football the country's favorite spectator sport. I don't believe that violence in itself appeals to most fans, rather than what's created in the face of that violence. But the violence is more than a byproduct, and it can be fatal.

Since the potentially lethal nature of football is obvious, I suppose the issue is that an active player mentioned it. I'm sure that current players don't think about this; they can't. I'm sure that Carson Palmer doesn't think about it when he walks onto the field, only when he's talking to a sportswriter(link). But it's strange to be surprised by his comment, as if anyone has ever thought that NFL football was perfectly safe.

By Michael Oriard  |  September 9, 2009; 8:12 AM ET  | Category:  Concussions , Medical , NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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