False Alarm: No Increased Suicide Risk in NFL Players

Whether they were quarterbacks, wide receivers, or defensive linemen in the National Football League (NFL), former players do not have a higher risk of suicide than the general population.

Whether they were quarterbacks, wide receivers, or defensive linemen in the National Football League (NFL), former players do not have a higher risk of suicide than the general population.

Neurological risk is an obvious concern when it comes to playing football. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease, often makes headlines — especially since the condition was highlighted in the film Concussion, where Will Smith portrays the struggle Bennet Omalu, MD, faced to get the NFL to pay attention to evidence linking serious brain injuries to the sport. Previous research has assessed the relationship between CTE and suicide, with some suggesting that the condition increases the risk. However, a new study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that this belief could be unwarranted.

Published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, the analysis included 3,439 former NFL players who played at least five season between 1959 and 1988. It’s been indicated that different positions have different risks, so the researchers split the cohort up in two categories.

  • Speed positions: quarterback, fullback, running back, and wide receiver
  • Non-speed positions: all defensive and offensive linemen

The team noted that punters and kickers were left out of the study since they don’t typically have physical contact that would result in head injury.

  • Related: NFL Official Acknowledges CTE-Football Link for the First Time

From 1979 to 2013, a total of 12 players committed suicide. If this was matched for gender, race, and age, a real-life population in the United States would have 25 suicides.

Suicide rates were almost equal between Caucasian and African American players. When compared to the general US population, speed-position players had significantly lower suicide rates. Non-speed-position players also had lower rates, but they were not statistically significant.

In addition, deaths from heart disease, cancer, and assaults and homicides were significantly lower in all of the NFL players.

“In studying this particular cohort of professional football players, our researchers did not find this to be the case; more studies are needed before further conclusions can be reached,” Douglas Trout, MD, deputy director of the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies at NIOSH, confirmed in a news release.

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