THE Super Bowl, the highlight of the National Football League season, is the very model of a 21st-century media, marketing and entertainment mega-event. It commands a huge audience (an average 90.7 million viewers tuned in to last year’s Super Bowl), attracts enormously lucrative commercials ($2.6 million for a 30-second spot this year), and will feature Prince as the performer during its halftime extravaganza.
But despite all the trappings of a modern business empire, football — or more specifically its labor system — harks back to the 19th century. Like miners and dock workers of that time, the N.F.L.’s work force has little protection against job loss. Workers frequently toil outdoors in freezing temperatures. And they often literally put their lives at risk, as we were reminded last week when a neuropathologist claimed that the suicide of a former N.F.L. player, Andre Waters, was linked to brain damage he sustained while playing football.
“It brings to mind the high-risk jobs of the earlier industrial period,” said Raymond Sauer, an economics professor at Clemson University and founder of the Sports Economist blog.
To be sure, football players, with their generous paychecks, do not seem as exploited as those rail-thin miners dusted with coal. But compared with athletes who ply their trades in two other big-money sports — basketball and baseball — they’re strictly blue collar.
“The average salary in the National Football League is somewhere around $1.3 million,” notes Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, compared with $2.7 million for Major League Baseball and $4.2 million for the National Basketball Association.
Beyond that, football players’ careers resemble life as Thomas Hobbes described it in the 17th century: they’re nasty, brutish and short. The average football career lasts less than four years, notes Mark Yost, author of “Tailgating, Sacks and Salary Caps: How the N.F.L. Became the Most Successful Sports League in History.”
The minority of players who do make it past a fourth year are still treated like (highly paid) temporary or contract workers. In baseball and basketball, teams must honor multiyear contracts, even if players suffer career-ending injuries or if their skills decline.
Not so in football. “A person with a five-year contract will get paid only for the current year if he suffers a career-ending injury,” Professor Sauer noted.
Star players with bargaining power have been able to protect themselves by negotiating guaranteed multimillion-dollar signing bonuses. But less-valued players are not able to extract those bonuses, and the relatively weak players’ union has not been effective in getting many concessions from owners, nor much protection for players hurt on the job.
Tiki Barber, the New York Giants star running back who retired this year after 10 years in the N.F.L., summed up many players’ predicament when he told New York magazine recently that he wanted to retire while he could still walk.
But while Mr. Barber and his fellow players will likely feel the after-effects of the hits they suffered for years, their employers won’t necessarily cover the care they might require. “Players get insurance that covers them for five years after their careers are over,” Mr. Zimbalist said. “But given the kinds of abuse that they suffer, and the injuries they have, that’s not enough. They have ongoing physical problems that can last for 10 or 20.”
In choosing to play despite those risks, football players are engaging in a brutal form of cost-benefit analysis, with their health on the line. In his interview with New York magazine, Mr. Barber said he was motivated to retire in part by the example of Earl Campbell, who played for the Houston Oilers: “He can’t even walk. He has a wheelchair or a walking stick.”
Indeed, evidence suggests that the job requirements for playing football — a huge physique and a capacity for dishing out and accepting physical punishment — can be hazardous to one’s health. And the more physiologists learn about the damage sustained by football players during their careers, the more it seems the parallels should be drawn not between football and other sports, but between football and dangerous working-class labor like working with asbestos and mining coal.
The gladiator mentality instilled in players early on ties the endurance and acceptance of pain to economic rewards. Given the economics of the industry, prospective college scholarships (which high school players compete for), tuition and board (which college players count on), and later, N.F.L. salaries are all contingent on players absorbing immense amounts of physical punishment. Players have generally accepted the aches associated with the bargain in exchange for the compensation, and wear their creaky legs and aching backs as badges of service, like varsity letters.
But like asbestos workers who develop with mesothelioma years after exposure, or coal miners stricken with black lung disease, they are finding that the wear and tear associated with using their bodies as commodities can take years off their lives.
Last year, a Scripps Howard News Service study found that “football players are more than twice as likely to die before age 50” as Major League Baseball players are, and that many of those who died suffered from obesity, or from ailments tied to obesity like heart disease.
In the case of Andre Waters, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist at the University of Pittsburgh, concluded that the 44-year-old former safety’s brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old man. Dr. Omalu says the damage was either caused or worsened by successive concussions Mr. Waters sustained playing football. That damage, he says, was at least partly to blame for Mr. Waters’s life-threatening depression.
None of this is to say that playing in the N.F.L. isn’t an attractive career path. But it isn’t all that glamorous either. Just ask Earl Campbell.