The Risks of Playing Professional Football

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Professional football is America’s favorite past time. Professional football has been around since the 1890’s and by 1910 it had begun to become a popular sport to watch. Watching football is so popular that it tops the list of things that people plan to do on Sundays other than going to church. Most people love football because it is a very physical game. People also love football because of the excitement that it offers. Athletes are drawn to the game because of the amount of money that they can earn just for playing the game. The desire to earn a lot of money is a key motivator in young men and why they decide that they want to spend such a great amount of time pursuing their dreams of becoming a professional football player. Hundreds of thousands of young men dedicate themselves to training and developing skills that will make them successful on the field.

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Professional athletes have to be in top physical condition in order to perform. They always train their bodies in order to be faster and stronger. This training ensures their success on the field but is also done to prevent injury. Football players train their muscles so that they will not suffer dangerous injuries such as broken bones or torn ligaments; but, there are other risks to football players that are much more dangerous and are often overlooked. The goal of this research paper is to inform you of the other risks associated with playing football. The risks that I will be discussing are CTE, Sleep Apnea, Heart Disease and Spinal Cord Injuries.

A major discussion amongst the NFL right now is the discussion of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). CTE is a brain disorder found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The repetitive brain trauma causes a protein in the brain to form clumps. The protein clumps slowly spread through the brain and kill brain cells called neurons. In the early stages of the disorder, the person experiences aggression, depression and impulse control problems. As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, and eventually progressive dementia (What is CTE).

A pathologist named Dr. Bennett Omalu published the first evidence of CTE in a former NFL player in 2005. The player was former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. Dr. Omalu is a forensic neuropathologist and was responsible for determining the cause of death for Mike Webster in 2002. Dr. Omalu determined that Mike Webster died from a heart attack but while gathering information from all parts of Mr. Webster’s body, Dr. Omalu noticed that Mr. Webster’s brain contained Tau protein clumps. Tau protein is found in persons with Alzheimer’s disease. This made Dr. Omalu concerned because he knew that Mr. Webster was too young to have Alzheimer’s disease. Mike Webster was only 50 years old at the time of his death. Dr. Omalu was told by friends and family members of Mr. Webster that he was displaying unusual behaviors prior to his death. Dr. Omalu conducted more research and in 2005 published his research and named the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

In 2005 when Dr. Omalu published his findings about CTE it was rejected by the NFL and they wanted him to withdraw his findings. Today the NFL still continues to deny the fact CTE is caused by direct repeated blows to the head. CTE research continues to be performed. In 2017 a study from researchers at Boston University School of Medicine found that CTE was present in 99 percent of brains from former NFL players. According to the study of the 202 brains studied, the group diagnosed 177 with CTE, including 110 of 111 from the former NFL players (99 percent); 7 of 8 from the Canadian Football League (88 percent); 9 of 14 semi-professional players (64 percent); 48 of 53 college players (91 percent), and 3 of 14 high school players (21 percent) (Moran). Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death through brain tissue analysis. Scientists are currently trying to determine if there is a way to detect CTE in a living person through a simple blood test. Dr. Omalu’s story can be seen in the movie Concussion starring Will Smith.

Another risk factor for players in the NFL is the development of heart disease. Heart disease is described as blocked blood vessels that can lead to chest pain or stroke. The blockages in the heart vessels are caused by plaque that lines the inside of the arteries and decreases the blood flow to the heart muscle. The plaque buildup is a result of eating a diet high in fat. While some NFL players are fit and lean there is a population of players that are heavier. A study for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that heart disease in NFL players tend to be more associated with the position men play. According to the CDC’s research, defensive linemen have a 42% higher risk of heart disease related death compared to the general population (Heart Health Screenings). NFL linemen typically eat higher fat diets in order to gain or maintain their massive body weights. Heavier body masses also contribute to players with higher blood pressure and sometimes leads to an enlargement of the aorta; the main vessel of the heart that carries blood to the rest of the body. This enlargement and higher blood pressure can sometimes lead to a serious condition called aortic aneurysm or aortic dissection.

In football spinal cord injuries occur when the head is used as an offensive weapon. Examples of this is when one player tackles another or when the ball carrier is driven to the ground by the defense. Spinal cord and neck injuries range from mild to severe. Mild burners and stingers are the most common type of neck and spinal cord injury in the NFL. These burners and stingers are injuries to the brachial plexus which is a group of cervical nerves that runs through the neck, over the first rib and into the armpit. Symptoms of brachial plexus injuries include temporary loss of sensation, burning pain or a tingling sensation that runs down the length of the arm and shoulder weakness.

More severe spinal cord injuries occur when a vertebrae has become fractured or dislocated; or when a cervical nerve root has become stretched or bent. The most severe type of neck or spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord becomes bruised or severed. These type of injuries occur a lot less frequently in the NFL.

A study was done by the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois in 2012. The study wanted to find the incidence of both mild and severe spinal cord injuries in the NFL over an 11 year period. During this time there were 2,208 injuries reported. The research concluded that Spinal and axial skeleton injuries occur frequently in the NFL and can result in significant time missed from practices and games (Spinal and Axial Skeleton Injuries). Practicing the right way to block and tackle can help prevent neck and spinal cord injuries. Offensive carriers and tacklers should never use their heads when they are about to make contact with another player.

Lastly, another risk associated with playing professional football is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a serious condition in which a person stops breathing multiple times during their sleep. Symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring during sleep and waking up feeling tired after a full nights’ sleep. NFL linemen have a higher risk of developing sleep apnea because they have a higher body mass index and bigger neck circumference. Sleep apnea has been proposed as the cause of death among NFL players such as Reggie White, who played professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers (Obstructive Sleep Apnea). NFL players with sleep apnea should find ways to reduce the risk of sudden death from sleep apnea. Treatment options include weight loss and the use of a CPAP breathing mask that is worn during sleeping.

As stated earlier, football is America’s favorite past time. Most people love football because it brings people together to cheer their favorite teams to victory. In football there is never a boring moment. Football offers high intensity activity on each drive. The intensity is a major reason why there are major risks in playing the sport such as CTE, heart disease, sleep apnea and spinal cord injuries. The NFL should embrace research that has already be proven and continue to enforce ways to keep the sport safe for the players so that they have long careers. This will ensure that our favorite players will be around to help get wins.

Works Cited

  1. Moran, Barbara. CTE Found in 99 Percent of Former NFL Players Studied.
  2. Boston University Research, 24 July 2017, www.bu.edu/research/articles/cte-former-nfl-players/
  3. Rogers, AJ, Xia K, Soe K, Seixas A, Sogade F, et al (2017) Obstructive Sleep Apnea among Players in the National Football League: A Scoping Review. J Sleep Disord Ther 6: 278. doi:10.4172/2167-0277.1000278.
  4. Seton Healthcare Family. Heart Health Screenings for Former NFL Players. Seton, 9 Feb. 2016. www.seton.net/heart-care/2016/02/08/heart-health-screenings-for-former-nfl-players/, Spinal and Axial Skeleton Injuries in the National Football League.
  5. Mall, N., Buchowski, J., Zebala, L., Brophy, R., Wright, R., Mataya, M., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22647737
  6. What Is CTE? Concussion Legacy Foundation, 23 Oct. 2018, concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE.
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The Risks of Playing Professional Football. (2020, Mar 06). Retrieved December 9, 2022 , from
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