By late next week, every NFL team will be in training camp. Preseason games start in less than three weeks, and the league’s regular season kicks off in early September. Football is almost back, which is great news for fans.
But anyone who has been reading The Post’s compelling series on NFL injuries, “Do No Harm,” might struggle to look at the game the same way as players get back on the field. My colleagues Rick Maese and Sally Jenkins recently revealed details about the NFL’s warped medical culture. Players rely on pain killers to stay in the game, team medical personnel utilize questionable short-term cures to get their patients back on the field and former players often are unable to afford the staggering costs of medical care. The NFL’s insufficient support for its alumni is the most troubling issue.
The league has fallen embarrassingly short in addressing the football-related medical problems many players face years after retirement. The NFL has become professional sports’ biggest moneymaker, and owners should do whatever is necessary to provide players and former players with the best medical care later in life. For the NFL, substantially increasing its financial commitment for the health care of retirees — and making it easier for former players to receive benefits — is the right thing to do. And in the long run, it would also make good business sense.
As the series has demonstrated, there’s no longer any question about the debilitating long-term effects of playing in the NFL. Statistics show that one in four retirees will need joint replacement. Former players suffer arthritis at five times the rate of their peers. They’re four times as likely to suffer neurodegenerative diseases — the most alarming health consequences of the game — such as Alzheimer’s or ALS.
Although symptoms of many health problems may not develop for at least a decade after the end of an NFL career, the league’s health insurance lasts for just five years after retirement. Players who are in the NFL fewer than three seasons do not qualify for post-career insurance. The average NFL player is out of the league after just 3.9 seasons, according to the NFL Players Association. A wide gap must be bridged.
The NFL has tried, its leaders say. Owners have funded programs, created in collective bargaining with the players’ union, that help retirees with medical expenses. NFL representatives are quick to point out that many of the league’s benefits extend long after players have left the game. When compared to other businesses, the league boasts, its benefits are extremely generous.
Problem is, the NFL is unlike any other business. In most lines of work, employees don’t face the threat of severe bodily harm at the office. Each time an NFL player steps on the field, he knows a potential career-ending injury could occur on any play. Players realize they may face a lifetime of health problems from doing their jobs.
And if benefits don’t meet the needs of those who have them or are too difficult to access, what are they worth?