Recruiting the NFL: Your Next Big Opportunity?

COMMENTARY |  ESPN bores us--we hear enough about lab tests, drugs and false positives at the office, thank you very much. But early this year, a sports story by the Scripps Howard News Service has not received much attention. Journalist Thomas Hargrove, based in Washington, D.C., has analyzed obesity in the National Football League (NFL). We ourselves only found his article quite belatedly.

Some of Hargrove's data came from a retired pollster, David Neft, who maintained his own records about nearly 4,000 NFL players. Some 125 of the players born in the past 50 years are no longer alive and have conclusive causes of death.

Fifty percent of recently departed NFL players were obese while they were playing the game. Of the NFL players who were obese, 28 percent died before their 50th birthdays. A comparison to 2,403 professional baseball players was fascinating: football players are more than twice as likely to die before the age of 50.

Is this an opportunity, or is this an opportunity? How many clinical trials are unable to find enough patients? The NFL could step up here. Hargrove's work shows that 56 percent of the players in the NFL are now obese. (In 1985, the percentage was 44 percent.) Offensive tackles, on average, now weigh an average of 313 lbs., from an average of 281 lbs. 20 years ago. These guys are big.

A deal with a major drug company or, preferably, the industry as a whole could reinforce the progressive, kid-friendly image of the NFL. Trials in obesity, in diabetes, in bariatric surgery--there are plenty of off-season jobs for the big men of the NFL. Best of all, the players could continue to follow their usual diet all year long, or even eat that second steak, a third baked potato.

As a league, the NFL could offer a ready-made, disciplined group of athletes with charisma and built-in media appeal. We can imagine public service ads with mountain-sized players soberly advising that all football fans consider volunteering for trials.

For the athletes, it could be a wonderful opportunity to study, for the first time, something called science. This vital topic is not taught in every high school or college in the land any more. Giving every NFL player some exposure to science would be good for the sport and good for science. There is no question the NFL players have to care about their health to play the game as well as they do.

Yes, the competitive juices of other sports might flare up. They too might want to participate in a clinical trial. Tobacco-chewing baseball players could be excellent candidates for trials studying dental issues or cancers of the mouth. Hockey players and life-long head injuries could be another match. Cyclists and hormone replacement therapy? Boxers and Parkinson's disease? The opportunity list is endless when it comes to professional sports and clinical trials.

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