A recent study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine by researchers from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has ignited discussions about the impact of NFL careers on suicide rates among retired players. According to the study, retired NFL players exhibited a 53% lower rate of suicide compared to a demographically similar group of U.S. males. This finding, while significant, opens up complex debates rather than providing clear answers about the relationship between professional football and suicide risk.

Study Overview

The research focused on a cohort of 3,439 retired NFL players who participated in five or more seasons between 1959 and 1988. By tracking these individuals through 2013, researchers identified 12 cases of suicide. When compared to national mortality rates, an estimated 25.3 suicides would have been expected in a similar sample from the general population. This results in a standardized mortality ratio (SMR) of 0.47, indicating the lower suicide rate among the studied NFL players.

Limitations of the Study

While the study’s findings are intriguing, they are limited in scope and do not conclusively answer whether playing in the NFL increases or decreases suicide risk:

  • Study Scope.
    The researchers explicitly stated that their goal was not to determine if NFL play causes or prevents suicide, but rather to compare the suicide mortality against expected rates in the general U.S. population. This distinction is crucial as it acknowledges the study’s observational nature and its inherent limitations in proving causality.
  • Epidemiological Challenges.
    The study does not account for various confounding factors that could influence its outcomes. NFL players differ from the general population in several respects, including socioeconomic factors, physical health, and lifestyle choices, which may all influence suicide risk.
  • Interpretation of Results.
    The significantly lower suicide rate among NFL players could be influenced by factors unrelated to football itself, such as public stature, wealth, or access to medical and mental health resources. Conversely, it could reflect underreporting or misclassification of deaths, common issues in retrospective analyses.

The Ideal Study Approach

To genuinely understand the effects of playing in the NFL on suicide risks, a hypothetical “ideal study” would involve comparing NFL players with a control group that had similar physical, economic, and social profiles but did not play professional football. Such a study would isolate the variable of “NFL career” and potentially provide clearer insights into its impact on mental health.

The discussion extends beyond statistical analysis, touching on ethical considerations about player health and safety. As debates continue, it becomes increasingly important to consider the welfare of athletes not just during their active careers but also in their post-retirement lives. This involves ongoing support and monitoring, addressing both physical injuries and mental health concerns.