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Health Risks to Athletes: Beyond Steroids

Steroids have attracted a huge amount of attention in recent years including several posts here. A recent study (see article) by Scripps Howard News Service provides evidence that the size of professional athletes, especially in football, creates serious health issues. The study tracked the deaths of 3,850 pro-football players born since 1905. Medical examiners and coroners were contacted to determine the causes of death for the 130 players who died before age 50.

  • Twenty-eight percent of all pro-football players born in the last century who qualified as obese died before their 50th birthday, compared with 13 percent who were less overweight.
  • Seventy-seven percent of those who died of heart diseases qualified as obese, even during their playing days, and they were 2½ times more likely to die of coronaries than their trimmer teammates.
  • Only 10 percent of deceased players born from 1905 through 1914 were obese while active. Today, 56 percent of all players on NFL rosters are categorized as obese.
  • The average weight in the NFL has grown by 10 percent since 1985 to a current average of 248 pounds. The heaviest position, offensive tackle, went from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds.

Issues certainly can be raised regarding the evidence, as the NFL has done. For one thing, the NFL disputes the use of the body mass index to gauge obesity for individuals who are much more muscular than the general population. The reply of some health professionals is that additional size (muscle or fat) stresses the heart more. Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, notes "They [NFL players] clearly have higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease and hypertension, especially in the offensive and defensive linemen. And it clearly is higher than in the general population."

On the one hand, individuals who pursue the highest levels of success in many activities, sporting or otherwise, self-select into risky activities. Soccer players suffer foot, ankle, and knee injuries at greater rates than the general population. Boxer, downhill skiers, and NASCAR racers expose themselves to great bodily risks. Outside of sports, one might find differential rates of various illnesses or injuries among CEOs or crab fishermen (if you watch "Dangerous Jobs"). It's not clear to me that fixating on the particular risks associated with a particular sport makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, in a team sport such as football, there does seem to be a moral hazard issue lurking just as in the steroid issue (see September post). Players who might prefer not to use steroids or bulk up to mammoth sizes are placed at a competitive disadvantage by those who care less for their bodies. Interestingly, The NFL Player's Association seems more interested in such matters than the MLB Player's Association.