'A Car Wreck Every Week': Football's Physical Cost

Pro football is a violent sport. No news there. But the effect of that violence became more newsworthy this week. A study commissioned by the National Football League shows that former pro players suffer from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia at a rate far greater than the general population. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks to ESPN's Howard Bryant.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Time now for sports.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Pro football is a violent sport - there's no news there - but the effect of that violence became more newsworthy this week. A study commissioned by the National Football League shows that former pro players suffer from Alzheimer's Disease or other forms of dementia at a rate far greater than the general population.

We're joined now by Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. And Howard, you've reported on this subject over the years. So do these finding surprise you?

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (ESPN): No, they're not surprising at all. In fact, one of the things that has always come to light when you do these types of stories is how much the players recognize that the sport - especially offensive linemen -that the sport is going to take 10 or 15 years of quality time off of your life or end your life 10 or 15 years prematurely.

And the players pretty much to a man will say that that's the price of being a pro football player, and given the choice, knowing all of these details, they would do it again and do it again happily.

LYDEN: Well, is this a new phenomenon or was it just ignored or not reported in the past?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think it's certainly not a new phenomenon because the sport has always been a violent sport. And when you go back and look over the years, as long as they had been taking the temperature and the measure of the sport, they've known that if you're an offensive lineman in the game, your life expectancy is easily 15 years shorter than a regular average American male.

I think that the difference here is that the sport has become much more violent. The sport is faster, the sport is certainly more athletic than it's ever been, and what you having to deal with is harder hits. The game is just much faster and the players use their heads as projectiles. And as Bruce Smith used to say, that football is essentially a car crash every Sunday.

LYDEN: Well, we're a long way from leatherheads. I thought that technology and equipment had improved safety.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, it's improved in terms of helping the players do their jobs. The helmets are supposed to protect you a little bit more but the flip side of having stronger equipment is a greater feeling of invincibility, is that you have players who - you don't have pudgy linebackers anymore. These guys are 6-3, 6-4, 6-5, and they're 265 pounds and they've got four or five percent body fat.

So there is this feeling of invincibility where they will smash into each other. And it's the nature of the sport. And also we glamorize it as well. In my network and even when the players are in their own meetings, the harder the hits, the more excited the players get and the more excited the fans get.

LYDEN: So this is going to be hard for players to shrug off - between ages 30 and 49, 90 percent greater rates amongst football players. What's the next mover for the NFL?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think the next move for the NFL is they're trying to soften the sport, especially when it comes to hitting the quarterback. They have put all different rules in place. And of course those rules are met with resistance because any type of rule that makes the sport less physical creates its own sort of problems.

And I think what the NFL is probably going to end up doing is nothing, because this is the nature of the sport. One of the linebackers, when I used to cover the Washington Redskins, Marcus Washington, used to always tell me when they would try to do things to soften the sport, they would say, hey, this isn't golf, it's football. If you don't want to do it, then maybe this isn't your game.

LYDEN: All right. Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, thanks for being with us.

Mr. BRYANT: My pleasure.

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