Why Do NFL Players Risk Their Lives for Football? It’s the Economy, Stupid

67 percent of NFL players in the 2011 season were black.

By Jorge Rivas Jan 28, 2013

Last Wednesday Junior Seau ex-wife and four children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL. The law suit claims the former linebacker’s suicide was the result of brain disease caused by violent hits he sustained while playing football.

The wrongful death lawsuit claims Seau developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repetitive blows to the head during NFL games, and accuses the league of deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries.

An Associated Press review in November found that more than 3,800 players have sued the NFL over head injuries.

The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith looks at why so many men, especially young men of color are risking their lives to play in the NFL:

What would it take for current and potential future NFL stars to give up the game?

My guess is more than the threat of CTE. We talk about the culture of violent machismo as a driving motivator behind their choice to play, but it’s even more basic than that. It’s the economy, stupid. The reason there are over a million boys in this country, of all different ages, playing this violent game is that there are millions of dollars on the table, in guaranteed contracts and endorsement deals, available to those who prove themselves capable of strapping on the pads and play America’s favorite sport at the highest level. This is the lottery, and who is more willing to play than those who are most economically disadvantaged?

It’s no accident that throughout the year the most celebrated players talk about their humble beginnings coming from poor and working class families. It’s also no coincidence that so many of them are African-American. The NFL is made up of sixty-seven percent African-American men. Why? Because this is a hustle, and so long as African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor, they’ll also be disproportionately represented in the NFL.

Smith’s story cited research from the 2012 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card, released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. [PDF of report]

The report found 67 percent of players in the NFL’s 2011 season were African-American, that percentage has remained the same for four consecutive seasons. The all-time high for African-American players was 69 percent in 2003. The percentage of whites in 2011 remained constant with 2010 at 31 percent. The percentage of Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders remained at one percent and two percent, respectively. Of all the professional leagues in the United States, the NFL continues to have the smallest percentage of international players at one percent in 2011.