Is playing in the NFL worth a shorter life?

Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte (47) says playing in the NFL is worth a shorter life. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps/File)

You might not know the term Goldman Dilemma, but if you have followed sports over the last 30 years you’re probably familiar with the concept.

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 the Super Bowl this weekend, it’s worth asking that same question about football. Does playing in the NFL represent that same Goldman Dilemma for football players?

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, 25, said. “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.”

While announcing a 10-year study on football injuries and long-term health in 2013, Harvard researchers presented statistics showing professional football players in the U.S. and Canada have life expectancies in their 50s, according to the Boston Globe. On average, white males generally live to an average of 78 and African-American men about 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.”

Playing in the Super Bowl might represent the ultimate Goldman Dilemma for NFL players. Eighty-five percent 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?

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.

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 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.

Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information on football injuries and other sports medicine topics, check out his website drdavidgeier.com.