Personal Networks and Health of Former NFL Players
March 9, 2021
Think about the most important people in your life:
- Consider your family and closest friends who have shaped you into who you are.
- Picture current or past coworkers and teammates who have been with you as you’ve tackled a new challenge or achieved a spectacular goal.
- Bring to mind the people who you turn to for advice and support, whether you’re going through a tough time or just need a financial tip.
From our relatives to our casual acquaintances, and even their connections with one another, these are the people who make up our personal social network.
The people in this group influence us in profound ways. Research has shown that a strong personal social network can have remarkable benefits for one’s health and quality of life. Recently, our research scientists set out to map the networks of former NFL players. These networks of 303 study participants were compared to a control group of 269 American men who had not played professional contact sports. While the benefits of social networks have been examined in the general population, this is the first time they have been studied in contact sport athletes.
What We Found
As outlined in our publication, the networks of professional football players differed in some ways from the control group:
- As discussed below, health conditions such as brain injuries and some chronic illnesses are often associated with the shrinkage of personal social networks. Despite the higher occurrence of traumatic brain injury and chronic illness, former players as a whole did not have the network shrinkage that we would typically expect. Their networks were the same size as those of the non-NFL control group.
- Former players had more men than women in their networks and more friends than family in their networks compared to those we surveyed who were not football players.
- Large social networks are associated with longer lifespans, reduced incidence of dementia, and higher cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. We can’t say for sure why this is, but one possible explanation is that the team-based, fraternal culture of competitive football persists after a player’s career has ended and accompanies him for the rest of his post-football life.
What These Results Mean for You
This research is especially relevant for professional football players, some of whom have experienced traumatic brain injuries and are living with chronic health conditions. Those who experience chronic illness or brain trauma see reductions in the size of their networks, which can exacerbate their existing health problems. Larger personal networks actually help to mitigate the damage brought on by brain trauma and chronic illness.
Your social calendar isn’t the only thing that gets a boost when you stay connected with your friends and family. Being in touch with those in your personal network may enhance your health and theirs. Reach out to a loved one, send a message to a good friend to say hello, or set up a video chat with former teammates.
We know that the COVID-19 global pandemic has put a strain on social networks by limiting in-person gathering. The resources below can help support you and your social networks during these unprecedented times.
COVID-19 Support Resources
- Ways to stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis
- Practical advice on maintaining your emotional health during the Coronavirus outbreak
- Cultivating your social support network – tips from the Mayo Clinic
- Identifying your social support system
Depression and anxiety
- NFL Life Line is a free, independent, and confidential phone consultation service that is available to former players and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Life Line is run by professionals who are trained to assist individuals seeking resources for mental or physical health concerns or who are experiencing personal or emotional crises. Contact: (800) 506-0078 or visit the website: nfllifeline.org
- The Players Assistance & Counseling Services benefit provides eligible former players and their families with up to eight free counseling sessions a year for matters ranging from family/marital concerns to depression. Contact: (866) 421-8628. Learn to recognize the symptoms of depression and anxiety and what you can do to address them.
- AthLife is a partner of The Trust, powered by the NFLPA, and assists former players with continuing education and career development. Learn more here.
- The Manpower Group is a partner of The Trust, powered by the NFLPA, that supports former players along every step of the job search process provides tools and assistance for success. Learn more here.
- The NFL Foundation offers grant assistance to current and former players to support the causes they care about, including grants for youth football camps, social justice initiatives, and more. Learn more here.
If you are in distress or require immediate assistance, please contact the NFL Lifeline at 1-800-506-0078 or visit their website to chat with a trained counselor.
If you have questions about this information, please email our team or call us at 617-432-5000.