Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The NFL, the NIOSH, and the life-expectancy of players

The National Football League used its considerable public relations wherewithal to ensure that a newly published study indicating that former NFL players live longer than the average person received plenty of attention.  But as in most things the devil is in the details; and it appears that the league is playing a cynical game with the focus of the study.

An abstract of the study -- conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, (which can be found here or read the entire article here) -- makes it clear that the researchers sole focus centered on Body Mass Index (BMI), "risk factor for death (mortality) and heart disease," and "what happens when former athletes are no longer conditioning at their playing-day levels?"

As the league highlights, those players who participated in the study had a lower mortality rate than the average person.  More specifically, players had experienced fewer cancer-related deaths than average.  So much for the good news.

More alarming however are some of the following statistics offered by the researchers, and ignored by the league's press release:

  • "Players who had a playing-time BMI of 30 or more had twice the risk of death from heart disease compared to other players. Similar findings have been noted in other studies. Offensive and defensive linemen were more likely to have a BMI greater than 30. A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese in the general population whereas a healthy BMI is between 18.5-24.9."
  • "African American players had a 69% higher risk of death from heart disease compared to Caucasian players. The study controlled for player size and position and determined that those factors are not the reason for this difference."
  • "Defensive linemen had a 42% higher risk of death from heart disease compared to men in the general population. A total of 41 defensive linemen died of heart disease, when we anticipated 29 deaths based on estimates from the general population." 
The recent death of Junior Seau, and the renewed attention it brought to players and traumatic brain injury, was one of those tragic events that shines a spotlight on what is wrong with professional football.  Furthermore, the NFL's public relations maneuver ignores the very real risks to its African-American players, especially those that play along the interior line (someone should let Casey Hampton know about this study!).  By cherry-picking numbers from a study that had nothing to do with that issue, the league brings discredit to itself in an attempt to manipulate headlines.

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