When the Green Bay Packers won the first Super Bowl in 1967, the largest player on the team weighed 260 pounds, and not a single player in the NFL weighed 300 pounds. Heading into the January 2013 playoffs, NFL rosters have over five hundred 300 pounders—a weight at which physicians believe that the body’s cardiovascular system must become stressed later in life. At the same time, the number of players who run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds or less grows each year. A 2011 study, the most comprehensive study of former athletes to date, shows that while the overall health profile of retired NFL players was good, they do die from early onset of Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease four times as often as the general population. The study did not fully consider the super-sized players of this generation. The suicides of six current or former NFL players in the last two years and the early deaths of Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Reggie White underscore the mental as well as physical risks of the profession. Meanwhile, the league faces tough questions related to the long term effects of multiple jarring head blows and concussions. Everything on the NFL player is bigger, faster, and stronger except the skull. The Associated Press estimates that, to date, 3400 former players have sued the NFL for inadequate warnings and protections during their career.
The original gladiator sport of the ancient Romans was wrestling. It evolved (devolved?) toward weapons, and climaxed with hideous mismatches featuring unarmed men against lions or exotically armed warriors. Death was the expected end result. The sedentary fans’ primal need for blood fueled the increase in violence. In much the same way, the NFL’s bone-jarring hits stir something primal in us. The NFL regularly squashes its television competitors (24 of the 25 most watched television programs this past fall were NFL telecasts). The NFL’s revenue sharing and salary cap assure a competitive balance that, when mixed with the game’s physicality and production advances, makes NFL football an exceptionally engaging televised product. But the increasing freakishness of the NFL athlete, the brutality of the hits, and, increasingly, the early mortality of players suggest that the NFL could be evolving toward something other than spectator sport. Like the Roman patricians two thousand years ago, the people who run the NFL are catering to the desires of their audience. What do we really want? // Michael Adelberg