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Describing NFL Obesity in Terms of Crushing Stigma

“An insidious scourge that has nothing to do with with head trauma is ravaging retired N.F.L. players,” says Ken Belson in the New York Times. It’s a sensational opening and a catastrophizing angle on NFL obesity. But unfortunately, Belson offers more sensation than insight. Plus an unhealthy, heaping dose of stigma.

“Huge Men Unable to Lose Weight”

From beginning to end, Belson describes these men as victims of a brutal sport. Football teams recruit linemen that weigh 300 pounds or more and encourage them to maintain their size to do their job. As a result, all this bulk puts them at risk for obesity and its complications after they retire from the sport.

He goes on to describe their helplessness in the face of this condition. Without structure and guidance, they lose motivation, he writes. “The consequences can be dire.”

The Only Solution: Healthy Eating and Working Out

After describing this catastrophe, he says little about the full range of options for dealing with it. Only diet and exercise. Belson recites stories of players who’ve lost a lot of weight through healthy eating and lots of exercise. But he concedes that these are rare outcomes.

The truth of dealing with severe obesity is that it takes more than just motivation, structure, and guidance. It takes skilled medical care to deal with the physiology of this chronic disease. With good care, the odds for success go up quite a bit. Diet and exercise strategies are important, but more often than not, inadequate by themselves.

The most effective treatment for severe obesity is bariatric surgery. Certainly, it’s not for everyone. But in his 2700-word report, Belson never mentions it once. Instead, it’s all about food, exercise, motivation, and a lot of suffering.

Stigmatizing Effective Care for Obesity

Belson reflects a prevailing bias – diet and exercise are the only respectable solutions for obesity. So people who seek care don’t talk about it. They might have surgery and tell people only that they’re eating healthier and getting more active.

Bariatric surgeon Neil Floch sees this often:

It’s very frustrating to me when I treat people who are very prominent. Most often, they have good outcomes, but they don’t want to go public with their decision to seek treatment. I understand it. They’d have to face a lot of stigma. It’s just not right that so much stigma would be attached to a surgical procedure that can be life saving.

All in all, this story in the Times is profoundly disappointing because it’s so incomplete. It catastrophizes the problem and withholds information about solutions. It sets up people for despair and self stigma.

Instead, we need to crush the stigma and offer real solutions based on real science for what works in treating obesity.

Click here for the story in the Times.

Jacksonville Jaguars, photograph © Keith Allison / flickr

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January 18, 2019

2 Responses to “Describing NFL Obesity in Terms of Crushing Stigma”

  1. January 18, 2019 at 8:52 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Mr. Belson needs a copy of your post.

    Well said.

    Actually Tony Siragusa, Romeo Crennel and others (I suspect) from the NFL have used bariatric surgery to improve their health.


  2. January 21, 2019 at 11:12 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Ken Belson’s article in the New York Times of January 17 makes the good point that being big leads to success and megabucks for linemen in the National Football League but leads to lots of problems related to obesity – hypertension, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease……, after they retire from football. This may be even more important than the scourge of head trauma sequelae. Furthermore he points out that the comorbidities of obesity are compounded by lots of back and joint pain that they also inherit from football fame, that impedes exercise later in life.
    But I would debate his contention that this has a lot to do with being coached to purposely put on weight at a young age. Instead I would say this has much more to do with winning the lottery of being genetically endowed in the first place. Indeed several of the individual player’s stories in Ken Belson’s article include a family history of similar “problems.” Remember from many fat science columns that it is just as hard to put on weight as it is to lose it.
    I wonder what happens to sumo wrestlers when they retire. This is a question that Mr. Belson, who wrote about Japan in the Tokyo bureau for The New York Times from 2001 to 2004, might by uniquely equipped to answer.
    Someday football will follow that other great American sport, boxing, into disrepute, and mothers will try to prevent their kids from playing it. America will be even greater for it.