The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, meanwhile, surveyed 3,439 men who played in the NFL for at least five seasons between 1959 and 1988, and found that they actually live longer than the general population. Not surprisingly, the biggest health problems were found among the largest players—they were at elevated risk of heart disease. Claims that NFL players suffer a suicide rate of six times the national average have circulated widely on the Internet, but they have no foundation in fact.
The evidence, in sum, while admittedly incomplete, suggests that football is risky but not fantastically so—especially when compared with many other popular sports and pastimes.
Between 2002 and 2012, according to the University of North Carolina Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there were an average of 3.8 fatalities a year directly attributable to football, fewer than for weight lifting (an average of 6.3 fatalities a year) or even amusement park rides (4.4 fatalities a year). Mountain climbing produces more fatalities—an average of 25 a year. So does horseback riding, with more than 100 deaths a year, to say nothing of bicycle riding, which killed 677 people in 2011 alone, and swimming, which kills more than 3,500 people a year. (Granted, more people ride horses or go swimming than play football, but football players typically spend more time on their sport than casual hobbyists spend on theirs.)
Simply being outside produces more deaths than playing football. In 2012, 28 Americans died in lightning strikes. Driving is even more deadly. Given that almost 35,000 Americans died in 2009 in motor vehicle accidents, a football player is far more likely to die on his way to a game or practice than on the field itself.