Facing the Pressure to Gain Weight: A Super Bowl Player’s Story

Joe Staley may have been a mere three points from taking the Super Bowl Championship title, but the San Francisco 49er’s left tackle is far from his body weight before his days as a professional, offensive line football player. Staley, who is 6’5”, currently weighs in at 315 pounds, an alarming 95 pounds heavier than his slender freshman college frame from only a decade ago. A recent article in the New York Times, written by journalist Sam Border, reported that Staley began his football career as tight end for Central Michigan University. After a year in this position, the coaches asked him to “put on a little weight” in order to move him to the offensive line. By a “little weight,” the coaches meant roughly 80 pounds. To achieve this weight, Staley recalls having to eat until he was uncomfortably full, work out twice a day, and even wake up to eat in the middle of the night to boost his caloric intake. He describes this process as “miserable…feeling constantly bloated.” Because of his extra weight, Staley complains of pain in his back, joints, and bones. He even wishes for the day that he will be able to return to his former, normal-weight self.

Staley’s story brings up the question: how far is too far when it comes to manipulating our bodies for the love of a sport? Body critiquing is almost expected (or perhaps, too common) in other sports and activities that uphold strict body type standards associated with success. These sports include dance, horse racing, ski jumping, wrestling, and figure skating, to name a few. Just when we think that the football field is a safe place from disordered eating behaviors and pressure from coaches to conform to a specific body type and to maintain a certain weight, we are reminded that this is not necessarily the case. Athletes such as Staley may be put on a “binge eating” diet plan to bulk up, resulting in serious physical, emotional, and psychological consequences. Staley’s ordeal started in college, but what are the long term consequences when kids in high school or even middle school are encouraged to beef up to play? Coaches may instill their beliefs that a narrow weight range is most ideal for optimal performance. Rather than focusing on body weight and shape, the National Eating Disorders Association emphasizes that coaches should practice a positive coaching style through encouragement and motivation. In elite and professional athletics, this is easier said than done. When millions of dollars are at stake it is hard to adhere to the adage, “it’s just a game.” In much the same way that sports organizations from middle school to the big leagues are starting to take head trauma seriously, the same needs to occur for radical weight manipulation. Both can and do have serious long-term health consequences and place players at serious risk of long term disability.

By: Morgan Walker and Dr. Cynthia Bulik