The Sport of Football Itself is More Dangerous Than Anabolic Steroids

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The dangers inherent in the sport of American football itself may be more dangerous than anabolic steroids. Such as statement may seem preposterous given the information overload of media messages demonizing steroids in sports.

Yet, the steroid hysteria that has permeated the sports media in the past decade has made a mockery of the concept of relative risk. Few people deny that anabolic steroids have serious side effects but the emphasis on steroids has led many people to overlook, ignore or discount serious risks present in sports.

Several experts are trying to bring attention to issues in sports that may be more dangerous than steroids. Matt Chaney, one of the most critically honest and insightful researchers into steroids in sports, exposes the overlooked dangers of sport in a piece that interviews Penn State Professor Charles Yesalis

Yesalis is an anabolic steroid and doping expert who has written several textbooks on the topic. He is also an epidemiologist who understands the concept of relative risk and see a more serious threat than steroids facing the sport of American football.

“This is going to eclipse the drug problem, and it probably already has,” Yesalis said in a recent telephone interview. “I think the whole drug issue is passé, to some extent. You don’t see any protests at moment about drugs in sports. … Steroid fatigue is all over the place, and I think people have just accepted it, deciding to go along.”

“But I really think that tackle football is in trouble (for concussions),” Yesalis continued. “Football is clearly the No.1 game in American sports, and it does not look good from an epidemiological standpoint.”

Yesalis believes that brain trauma in sport—ranging from common concussion to rare subdural hematoma—bears earmarks of a public health menace given the popularity of athletic participation in America.

The concern over steroid use in young people is well-placed. However, it is critical that society does not over look other risks that face the youth participating in sports. The steroid side effects are real but the relative risks associated with contact sports that include concussions and various degrees of brain trauma have the potential to be an epidemiological nightmare.  Matt Chaney places the risks inherent in contact sports such as football in the proper perspective:

Medical literature has long held head injuries to be inherent of contact sport, and contemporary neurological evidence conclusively links brain damage to football, the game that attracts millions of players every year, mostly juveniles, and causes serious injury for thousands and death for a few. Expert estimates of football concussions range from 75,000 to 500,000 annually, with firmer numbers elusive because of assessment limits like underreporting.

Thousands of athletes, mainly adolescents, are affected by dangers inherent in the sport of football itself.

The number of catastrophic injuries from football (e.g. death, permanent paralysis, cervical cord injury, cerebral injury, concussions) is staggering with an estimated 40,000 high school players suffering concussions and 28 direct and indirect deaths attributed to football at all levels by some accounts.

Matt Chaney has written about this topic several times over the years. Popular sportswriter Will Carroll has also written about the seriousness of the problem among high school athletes. A few years ago, the New York Times even had a feature article on the topic entitled “Silence on Concussions Raises Risk of Injury“.

Yet, the issue fails to capture the public consciousness again and again. Topics like anabolic steroids in sports are the only risks associated with sports that seem to have staying power.

The hysteria over steroids has hijacked attention from the dangers of sport itself. Which poses the greater relative risk? Steroids or football? Still, we celebrate the latter and only demonize the former.

The public enjoys the morality play with steroids more than the cold, scientific statistics regarding dangers of sports.

Concussions vs SteroidsIllustration: Jim Cooke / Deadspin

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