You might not know the term Goldman Dilemma, but if you have followed sports over the last 30 years, I bet you’re familiar with the proposition it offered top athletes.
Researcher Bob Goldman surveyed elite athletes every other year from 1982 to 1995. He asked them a simple question. If you could take a drug that guaranteed you would win an Olympic gold medal, but it would kill you within five years, would you do it? In every survey, Goldman got the same results. About half of the athletes would accept that trade-off.
With Super Bowl XLIX approaching, it’s worth asking that same question about football. Does playing in the NFL represent that same Goldman Dilemma for football players?
Bears’ Chris Conte willing to give up 15 years of his life
In December, Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte admitted to a Chicago radio station that playing in the league is worth a shorter life.
“As far as after football, who knows. My life will revolve around football to some point, but I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life,” Conte told WBBM Newsradio in Chicago. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do with my life and I wanted to accomplish. And I pretty much set my whole life up to accomplish that goal. So I don’t really look toward my life after football because I’ll figure things out when I get there and see how I am.”
Life expectancies of NFL players and the general public
While announcing a 10-year study on football injuries and long-term health in 2013, Harvard researchers offered statistics claiming that professional football players in the United States and Canada have life expectancies in their 50s, according to the Boston Globe. On average, white males generally live to an average of 78. African-American men live to approximately age 70.
Current and long-term health risks of football have dominated sports news in recent years. Concussions and the development of chronic brain damage, bone and joint injuries like ACL tears that can lead to crippling arthritis, and much higher narcotic use among retired players than the general population have even led many people to question whether young kids should play football at all.
Conte himself is no stranger to injuries. He only played in 12 games this season, and he could not finish seven of the games. He has battled injuries to both shoulders, an eye injury, a back injury, and two concussions.
Despite his injuries and the risk of long-term dangers of the concussions, Conte wants to play. “My reference wasn’t even to concussions, just the associated risk with football and accepting the fact that life expectancy of someone who has played in the NFL is shorter than the average person,” he explained to ESPNChicago.com. “And I’m fine with trading that risk for the opportunity to play football since it’s something I have always wanted to do and a dream come true.”
NFL stars playing with a concussion
Playing in the Super Bowl might represent the ultimate Goldman Dilemma for NFL players. 85% of players surveyed anonymously by ESPN NFL Nation said they would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion, despite widespread scrutiny of concussion risks.
We might shake our heads in disbelief and ask why these athletes would accept such risks. Would we make the same decisions?
Would we take similar risks to our health?
At first glance, it seems like we wouldn’t. Authors of a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine asked Goldman’s question to members of the general public. Only two out of 250 people would take the drug.
Clearly elite athletes are different than the rest of us. They’re driven by different motivations. Maybe playing in the NFL, and playing in the Super Bowl, matters more to them that it would to most of us.
Quality of life vs. quantity of life choices
Before we judge their choices, though, we must consider our own lives. We make choices every day that value the quality of life now over the quantity of our years decades from now. We often choose sitting for hours in a movie theater instead of jogging or lifting weights. We choose fast food over green vegetables. We might even engage in activities like snowboarding or skateboarding that present real risks for serious injuries.
Largely we would rather enjoy life now rather than make choices that will keep us alive longer. One look at the obesity rate in this country proves that we accept a similar Goldman Dilemma.
Chris Conte is different only in that he openly acknowledges the risk of football to his life. We don’t consciously ponder how many days we are shaving off our lives when biting into a cheeseburger.
While you’re watching the Seahawks and Patriots battle Sunday, consider the Goldman Dilemma. Ask yourself if you would accept the risk of poor health later in life to play in the NFL and play in the Super Bowl.
Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the January 29, 2015 issue of The Post and Courier.