When Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall recently announced that he was retiring from the NFL at the relatively young age of 26, he did so because he no longer wanted to risk serious injury "for the sake of entertainment," among other reasons. While he loves the game and appreciates the millions of dollars he earned playing it, he expressed a desire to spend more time traveling and writing, preferably with a sound body and mind.
Although some have questioned Mendenhall's reasons for quitting his lucrative job, there's a growing consensus that, as sportscaster Bob Costas once put it, football has become "unacceptably brutal." After defensive back Andre Waters and linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, for example, scientists diagnosed them both with a degenerative brain disease associated with far too many collisions to the head. Last summer, the NFL handed out $765 million to settle a lawsuit involving thousands of retired players suffering from head injuries.
"The perceived quality of life is important because we determine how we function in society. If we're not happy with where we are, then that's a problem."
According to a new study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, however, it's not just professional football players who face an increased chance of both mental and physical impairment. Gathering data from 457 Indiana University alumni, aged 40 to 65, who had either competed at the Division I level—primarily in football, basketball, baseball, or track—or solely played sports in a recreational capacity, researchers found that, health-wise, the former group fared worse than the latter.
The study revealed that middle-aged former Division I athletes were more than twice as likely to report physical problems that limited their daily activities in comparison to their peers who had been involved in intramurals or club sports. In addition, over two-thirds of varsity athletes stated they had either practiced or played with an injury, two-thirds had received a major injury while playing, and half suffered from chronic pain. Those numbers were just 33 percent, 28 percent, and 26 percent, respectively, for the recreational athletes.
The varsity athletes also scored worse for depression, fatigue, and trouble with sleeping, which in turn placed them even lower on quality-of-life scales.
"Being a Div. I athlete is an identity, and it's hard for individuals going from being part of a team and motivating each other to workout to being self-motivated to take your dog for a walk or whatever your new activity is," says Janet Simon, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate in public health at IU. "It's hard enough for everyday people to do it; imagine if you were playing at such a high level and then you're done."
In recent years, especially after Louisville guard Kevin Ware broke his leg in a gruesome fashion during last season's NCAA basketball tournament, critics have heated up the debate over how much universities should finance their athletes' ongoing medical costs after graduation. “Ware’s injury underscores just how vulnerable college athletes are: in a moment it can all be gone,” Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, toldThe New York Times. “Once you’re a former player, you’re on your own.”
It's for this reason that football players at Northwestern University are moving to form a union with collective-bargaining power, arguing that they're not just students, but employees who earn their employer millions in revenue. And what do they want? Better health benefits, better treatment for concussions, and future medical treatment.
As much as Simon's study suggests that former Division I athletes could benefit from health care coverage long after their college days are over—and they most definitely would benefit—her research is not without problems. First of all, the sample size is relatively small, and football players comprise 40 percent of the varsity group. And since top-tier athletes have attained a higher degree of physical fitness, they arguably experience more overall deterioration as the body enters middle age.
"But the perceived quality of life is important because we determine how we function in society," Simon says. "If we're not happy with where we are, then that's a problem."
For her dissertation, Simon is currently building upon this body of research by examining each sport individually, since swimming, for instance, obviously puts less pressure on the joints than football. She also plans to bring participants into the lab, where experts can assess their physical proficiencies in a more objective manner.
It's also important to remember that today's Division I athletes compete in better facilities, receive better training, and are fitted with better equipment than their counterparts from past decades. While Simon admits the results of this study may not fully translate to current student athletes, modern sports come with a trade-off.
"Training has skyrocketed and people are competing year-round, so their exposure to having the potential for injury is probably much higher then it was back then," Simon says. "We know so much more about health care, but our athletes are getting bigger and stronger, and we don't know how that's going to play out."