Objectives: Fifty percent of all athletes at the National Football League (NFL) Combine report having had a shoulder injury at some point during their playing career. Rotator cuff tears are rare injuries in young athletes, but an increasing incidence has been noted amongst competitive football players. It is unknown how pre-existing rotator cuff tears affect career longevity and performance of NFL athletes. In Combine athletes with pre-existing rotator cuff tears, knowledge of outcomes may help athletes and physicians manage expectations of draft potential, career length and performance. Methods: The written medical evaluations of prospective professional American football athletes from 2003-2011 during the NFL Combine were compiled and evaluated. All players were evaluated for the diagnosis of a pre-existing rotator cuff tear and stratified based on whether or not they underwent surgical intervention. Athletes with rotator cuff tears, who were selected in the NFL draft, were matched by age, position, year, and round drafted to control draftees without significant documented shoulder pathology. Career statistics, including a previously established “Performance Score,” were compiled. The continuous variables of each cohort were compared using a Student’s t-test. A Chi Squared test was performed to analyze the categorical data. Statistical significance was accepted with a p-value < 0.05. Results: Between the years of 2003 and 2011, 2,965 consecutive athletes were evaluated. Forty-nine athletes were identified with a pre-existing rotator cuff tear; twenty-two of these athletes underwent surgical intervention for their tear and 27 were treated non-operatively. Those who attended the NFL Combine with a history of a rotator cuff tear were significantly less likely to be drafted than those without a previous injury (55.1% vs. 77.5% respectively, p = 0.002) (Table 1A). The 27 drafted athletes with pre-existing rotator cuff tears played significantly fewer years (4.3 vs. 5.7, p=0.04) and significantly fewer games (47.1 vs. 68.4, p=0.04) than matched control athletes without rotator cuff tears (Table 1B). Additionally, these athletes started significantly fewer games (23.7 vs. 43.0, p=0.02) and had significantly worse performance scores (0.97 vs. 1.33, p=0.01) when compared to controls. When comparing those who had surgical intervention on their rotator cuff tears with those treated non-operatively, there were no statistically significant differences identified in outcome measures, including round drafted (3.7 vs. 4.8, p=0.17) and performance score (0.18 vs. 1.36, p=0.16) (Table 1C). Conclusion: NFL athletes with pre-existing rotator cuff tears were less likely to be drafted. Those drafted had decreased career longevity as well as diminished career performance when compared to matched control players. Additionally, athletes who had previous surgical intervention on a torn rotator cuff trended toward a worse draft status and career performance score, but these results were not statistically significant. Players with rotator cuff tears, regardless of whether or not they had surgery, demonstrated significantly shortened careers and decreased performance scores compared to players without rotator cuff tears. These results will help both players and physicians at the NFL Combine manage expectations of draft potential, career longevity and success.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Orthopedics and Sports Medicine