isn’t surprising. But through Dec. 31, 2010, NFL players from the
1950 season have been dying 0.56 years younger than their MLB
counterparts (and, as already noted, NFL players from the 1930
season died 1. 4 years younger than MLB players). Why do football players have worse longevity relative to the boys of summer?
Many people, including myself, hypothesize that it has to do
with the fact that football is a rougher contact sport. Football
players routinely suffer body blows and concussions. The recent
death of Junior Seau, a former linebacker for the New England
Patriots and the San Diego Chargers and one of the NFL’s most
ardent competitors, has again brought this issue to the forefront.
Is it possible that repeated hits to the body and the head when a
player is in his 20s and 30s can manifest themselves as increased
mortality at age 70 and older as shown in the 1950 data? In another decade or so of monitoring, we will be able to close out the
mortality ratios on 1950 players in each sport and have a definite
answer as to their average age at death.
When the age-related mortality experience for 1980 NFL
players is examined, the discrepancy between the two groups
of players is even stronger. In 1980, 1,441 men played for 28 NFL
teams (see Table 5). In that same year, 916 MLB players competed for 26 teams (see Table 6). The observation period for
those tables is 30 years, from Jan. 1, 1981, through Dec. 31, 2010.
Once again we see that MLB mortality is better than NFL
mortality—this time at every age bracket except for those under
40. Only 83 NFL players out of 1,441 and 44 MLB players out
of 916 in these cohorts have died through Dec. 31, 2010, and,
on average, the NFL players have died 1. 14 years younger than
the MLB players.
Still, the study results reveal that not only have the observed
NFL and MLB players experienced better mortality than their
counterparts in the general population, but also the mortality of
both player groups has been improving faster than that of the general population. For example, the mortality ratio for NFL players
under the age of 50 has declined from 88.0 percent for 1930 players
to 48. 6 percent for 1950 players to 42.0 percent for 1980 players.
There’s another change in the mortality pattern between the
two leagues from 1950 to 1980. In 1980, the better mortality for
MLB players occurs in the age bracket 40–49, in which the mortality ratio for NFL players is 51. 2 percent and only 19. 8 percent
for MLB players, and in the 50–59 age bracket, in which the
mortality ratio is 60. 4 percent for the NFL players and 36. 3 percent for MLB players.
The size of the differences in the ratios at these ages wasn’t
seen in the 1950 experience. This suggests the possibility that
there may have been a change in one of the leagues between
1950 and 1980 that didn’t occur in the other league—and that
this change has affected the relative player mortality between
the two leagues. (During the same period, the life expectancy
for a male aged 25 improved in the general population by nearly
one year each decade—increasing from 44. 46 to 47. 23.)
Both sports certainly changed significantly during the 30
years between 1950 and 1980. During that time, baseball went
from 16 teams located in the Northeast and Midwest to 26 teams
across the United States. The number of players grew from 530
to 916. Traveling by jet planes and a greater number of night
games became normal for the sport. In football, players became
larger and faster as the sport grew from 13 teams to 28, spanning
the country similarly to baseball while the number of players
grew by 1,000 from 441 to 1,441.
Another significant change between the two leagues during that time was their racial composition. About half the NFL
players in 1980 were black, while the percentage of black MLB
players in 1980 was much less—somewhere around 22 percent.
Given that in 1980 the United States Life Tables (developed by
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) show black
mortality as worse than white mortality, one would expect football players to have worse mortality than baseball players just
based on the greater proportion of black players in that sport.
In 1950, by way of comparison, the racial composition of both
leagues was essentially white, with only 10 black MLB players
and 19 black NFL players. The effect of racial composition on
mortality experience for 1950 players is therefore minimal.
Obesity—as measured by a body mass index (BMI)—is another factor that has been shown to affect mortality rates and
decrease longevity. Many football players have a high BMI, and
the increase in weight of football players from 1950 to 1980
might be the cause of the relative change in the mortality of players aged 40 to 59 between the two leagues. It’s an issue that has
caught the attention of NIOSH, which is conducting research
into high BMIs and diseases that affect NFL players.
Whether it’s racial composition, high BMIs, football’s reliance on hard physical contact, a combination of these factors, or
some other factor altogether, it’s clear that while football players
have good mortality compared to the rest of the population, they
are unlikely anytime soon to attain the yet more favorable level
that baseball players enjoy.
It’s a puzzle that this armchair actuary will continue to observe from the sidelines. ■
PHILIP J. LEHPAMER is a fellow of the Society of Actuaries
(SOA) and a member of the Academy. The author thanks Michael
J. Cowell, a fellow of the SOA, for his suggestions on this article.
Baron, Sherry, “NFL Players Tackling Heart Disease,” NIOSH Science Blog,
Jan. 30, 2012. http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/category/cancer/
Baseball Almanac. www.baseball-almanac.com
Football JT-SW.com www.jt-sw.com/football/pro/rosters.nsf
Lahman, Sean, The Pro Football Historical Abstract, Lyons Press, 2008
Life Tables for the United States Social Security Area 1900-2100, August
NFL Mortality Study, NIOSH Facts, January 1994. www.cdc.gov/niosh/
Oldest Living Pro Football Players. www.oldestlivingprofootball.com
JUL | AUG. 12 CONTINGENCIES 43