When our lab set out to measure and map the personal networks of former NFL players as part of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, we expected bad news. NFL players famously bear high rates of brain disease, probably as a result of repeated concussions; a six-year study found that there are 0.41 concussions per NFL game. People who suffer from brain illnesses like Alzheimer’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury (which can result from repeated concussions) tend to become socially isolated. We were, however, pleasantly surprised when we surveyed the result. We found that despite the struggles that come with playing high-level contact sports, former NFL players maintain unusually robust social networks, going out to dinner, attending sporting events, or visiting friends with a frequency we expect from much healthier men.
Brain disease is only part of the reason for our early pessimism — all sorts of chronic disease and pain can serve to constrict one’s social network, which in turn tends to worsen one’s health outcomes. Competitive football is extremely rough on the body in general, in both the short and long terms. That sack that makes you wince when you see it on television also hurts the quarterback like hell. If he hops right up and jogs back to the line of scrimmage like nothing happened, that doesn’t mean his muscles, bones, and ligaments are made of different materials than yours are. It just means that he’s negotiated, over the course of his training, and in play after devastating play, a different relationship with pain than a normal civilian has.
Julius Thomas, a former NFL tight end and player adviser for the study, said, “If you get hit so hard you can’t breathe for 10-30 seconds, you have to get back up for the next play. You build a relationship with pain where you have to quiet that signal.” In speaking to a number of study participants, I heard this again and again — a learned distinction between being in pain and being injured, and a pressure to ignore the pain. As Max Lane, former offensive lineman for the New England Patriots, put it, “If you’re injured, you need to get it taken care of. But if you have things that are just hurting, you don’t want to be that guy who goes to the trainer for every little thing.”
This helps to explain the unusual resiliency of NFL players’ personal networks. In order to do well at the highest levels, players train themselves to show up for their teammates, whether they’re hurting or not. There is, as Thomas put it, a “warrior mentality.” This is good news for those who care about the fate of former professional athletes. Studies show that robust personal networks lead to better recoveries, longer lives, and better quality of life. Patients with brain injuries that look identical via brain scan can display markedly different levels of functionality depending on the size and quality of their personal networks. No brain is an island. To a degree that remains mysterious to scientists, the brains of those around us contribute to the healthy functioning of our own brains.
If all of this is correct, the “warrior mentality” inculcated by professional football provides some welcome mitigation to the well-known toll that the sport takes on its participants. This mentality is not, however, without limitations. Scientists hypothesize that there are different types of social support that lead to better health. One type is camaraderie, or simply knowing that you have a team out there that loves and roots for you reduces personal stress, which has a number of important downstream effects. A second type is the practical, in-person help that also has an important impact on health by providing aid when one is most vulnerable.
While we found that former NFL players maintain robust networks who wish them well, they get relatively slim help in day-to-day matters. This makes sense. As Thomas put it, “When I have surgery it’s uncomfortable for me to say, ‘Hey, can you help me with this?’ I have to be vulnerable enough to say, ‘Hey, I’m suffering,’ but that’s not the culture. We don’t recondition athletes at the end of their careers. They just keep going forward with the warrior mentality.” This means that the relatively large networks clustered around former players could be doing even more to help offset the damage done by the rigors of the game. It’s an unfortunate missed opportunity.
In some ways, the plight of former NFL players reflects broader issues around masculinity. Former defensive back Robert W. Turner II put it bluntly: “Men do not talk about their health, and they do not ask for help when it comes to their health.” The fear of showing vulnerability is widespread in America, but particularly pronounced among men, who often place a premium on appearing strong and reliable. This kind of stoicism can restrain one’s ability to ask for help, and also dampen one’s ability simply to be honest — with friends, loved ones, and even oneself — about the normal suffering that comes with being human. “If you’re good at ignoring pain, you’re going to be good at ignoring emotional pain,” said Thomas. This leads to a lot of silent suffering and despair, said Thomas, who is now a doctoral candidate in psychology at Nova Southeastern University. He hopes to work on issues like these with professional athletes post graduation.
NFL players, as some extremely visible exemplars of masculine strength, could play a decisive role in shifting this culture. Robert Turner, who now studies these issues as an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, feels hopeful. We are, he said, on the cusp of a generational shift. Social media, for once, seems to be driving positive change. “Individual athletes have voices they didn’t have before,” he said. In a move that might have shocked earlier generations of players and coaches, some players use those voices to speak about their personal struggles, and even to the point of publicly asking for time off to work on their mental health.
“We are,” Turner said, “at the very early stages of what will at some point tip the scales.” When it makes the news these days, masculinity often comes paired with the adjective “toxic.” There’s no doubt that toxic masculinity exists and, where it does, it’s bad for the men who carry its weight. It’s tremendously encouraging, then, to see some of our culture’s most visible warriors making steps, however small, to detoxify this particular part of the human story.
Ian Marcus Corbin is a researcher in the Dhand Lab at Harvard Medical School and a senior fellow at the think tank Capita.