The Measurement of Mortality of NFL and MLB Players (this article appeared in Contingencies July/August 2012 issue, the magazine of the American Academy of Actuaries, and may be accessed at contingencies.com)

(Don’t believe the hype or the internet urban myth that an inordinate number of football players are dying young – their mortality is better than the general population especially at the younger ages, but it is not as good as baseball players and as they age the difference in mortality becomes more evident)

 

During the 2011 lock out of National Football League (NFL) players, there were numerous claims made about the poor longevity of professional football players.  In particular, many internet web sites incorrectly asserted that NFL players had a life expectancy under age 60 with the worst claiming that players lost 2 to 3 years off their lives for every season played!.  As a life and health insurance actuary for over thirty years before my retirement, I decided to do a mortality study of the men who played professional football in 1930, 1950 and 1980 in order to gather some empirical evidence as to their longevity.  I also did a study of Major League Baseball (MLB) players for the same years, which by way of comparison should be of interest to fans of both games and the general public.

 

The results of my independent study shows:

1930 NFL players had 4% better mortality than men in the general population,

1950 NFL players have 22.1% better mortality than men in the general population as measured through December 31, 2010, and

1980 NFL players have 50.1% better mortality than men in the general population as measured through December 31, 2010.

 

Better than average mortality for professional football players should not come as a surprise to anyone who read the results of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) report to the NFL Players Association in January 1994 or read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fact sheet on this research where they state, “NFL players had a standard mortality ratio (SMR) of .54, or they had a 46% decreased rate of death.” [1].  This research also went into causes of death and documented an increased risk of heart disease and nervous system disorders for these players.  It was this information that was subsequently carried into the internet and emphasized so that the favorable mortality statistic was not conveyed to or got lost in the minds of many sports fans.

 

In spite of this good news for NFL players, the details by age of my study raise certain caveats for football players independent of causes of death, but first, here are the mortality results for baseball players, which are uniformly better than their football counterparts:

1930 MLB players had 15.4% better mortality than men in the general population,

1950 MLB players have 31.8% better mortality than men in the general population as measured through December 31, 2010, and

1980 MLB players have 64.9% better mortality than men in the general population as measured through December 31, 2010.

 

There were 302 men playing on 11 NFL teams in 1930.  The League was only 10 years old at the time and obtaining accurate information on the birth dates and dates of death of all of those players was not possible, but three different sources provided reliable and consistent information for this and subsequent years. [2], [3], [4].  As such 18 individuals were excluded, leaving 284 players in the1930 study.  Their mortality was studied over an 80 year period of time from January 1, 1931 to December 21, 2010 where population mortality rates from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Actuary were used to estimate the expected deaths. [5].  There were 493 men who played on 16 MLB teams in 1930.  Baseball keeps wonderful and highly reliable statistics on all aspects of the sport including birth dates and dates of deaths of their players. [6].  One player died during the 1930 season and did not make the 80 year observation period, leaving 492 players in the 1930 study. 

 

All the players in both sports from the 1930 season are now deceased, and thus we can determine the average age of death for both groups.  The NFL players had an average age of 70.4 at death, and the MLB players an average age at death of 71.8; i.e., NFL players died 1.4 years younger than MLB players.  It is also interesting to note that there were 5 MLB players from this cohort who lived to age 100 with the oldest dying at 100 years and 8 months, while the oldest NFL player lived to 98 years and 10 months.  Table 1 shows the mortality experience by age for the 1930 NFL players and Table 2 for the MLB players.

 

 

Table 1: NFL Mortality Experience of 284 Men who played in 1930

 

Age               Actual  Expected     A/E          

                     Deaths   Deaths

                                       

under 40              13         15.81    82.2%       

40-49                  18         19.41    92.8           

50-59                  29         37.81    76.7

60-69                  60         65.25    92.0           

70-79                  85         80.91  105.1           

80-89                  60         61.54     97.5          

90 & over           19         14.98   126.9          

all ages              284       295.70     96.0

 

under 70           120       138.27     86.8

70 & over         164       157.42   104.2

 

 

Table 2: MLB Mortality Experience of 492 Men who played in 1930

 

Age                 Actual   Expected    A/E

                        Deaths   Deaths

 

under 40                 12         23.56   50.9%

40-49                      30         35.59   84.3

50-59                     53         70.16   75.5

60-69                     93       118.37   78.6

70-79                    141      144.78    97.4

80-89                    116       129.31   89.7

90 & over               47         59.92   78.4

 

under 70                118      247.67   75.9

70 & over              304      334.01   91.0

 

Comparing age brackets between the two sports, we see that MLB players had uniformly better mortality and that at age 70 and above NFL mortality actually was worse than population mortality, something that did not happen with MLB experience.  All the above data demonstrates that professional baseball had better mortality than professional football during the 1930 season.

 

Moving on, Table 3 shows age-related mortality experience for 1950 NFL players where 441 men played for 13 teams, and Table 4 similar age-related experience for 1950 MLB players where 530 men played for 16 teams.  The observation period for these tables is 60 years, from January 1, 1951 through December 31, 2010.

 

 

Table 3: NFL Mortality Experience of 441 Men who played in 1950

 

Age               Actual  Expected     A/E          

                     Deaths      Deaths

                                       

under 40              3         13.78     21.8%       

40-49                 16         25.35     63.1           

50-59                 33         50.86     64.9           

60-69                 57         88.62     64.3           

70-79               124       135.89     91.2           

80-89               101       119.80     84.3          

90 & over             8           4.71   169.9          

all ages             342        439.01    77.9

 

under 70           109       178.61    61.0

70 & over         233       260.40    89.5

 

 

Table 4: MLB Mortality Experience of 530 Men who played in 1950

 

Age               Actual  Expected     A/E          

                     Deaths      Deaths

                                       

under 40               2         14.18     14.1%       

40-49                 15          31.22     48.0          

50-59                 49          64.26     76.3          

60-69                 66        110.12     59.9          

70-79               119        173.92     68.4          

80-89               127         172.11    73.8          

90 & over          24           23.59   101.7         

all ages            402          589.40     68.2

 

under 70          132        219.78     60.0

70 & over        270        369.62     73.0

 

One of the first things to be noted that is different from 1930 is that the 1950 cohorts in both sports continue to have living players at the end of the observation period.  That is, there were 99 NFL players and 128 MLB players alive on January 1, 2011.  Thus, it will not be possible to determine their average age at death nor the final mortality ratios at the later ages for several years

 

Comparing the mortality experience of 1930 and 1950 NFL players (Tables 1 & 3), we see that NFL mortality has improved at a greater pace than population mortality gains because all the age brackets in 1950, except for age 90 and over which has limited experience, show a marked improvement in the actual to expected mortality ratio.  Moreover, NFL mortality is now better than population mortality in the 70 and over age bracket.

 

Comparing the mortality experience of 1930 and 1950 MLB players (Tables 2 & 4), we see that MLB mortality has also improved at a faster pace than improvements in population mortality at least in most age brackets and certainly overall.

 

However, comparing 1950 cohorts between the two sports shows almost identical mortality at ages under 70 which wasn’t true in the 1930 experience; and it is only at ages 70 and later that MLB mortality is shown to be better.  Thus between the 1930 and 1950 seasons NFL mortality under age 70 improved at a greater pace than MLB mortality; but that has not happened in the senior years and thus overall baseball mortality for those who played in 1950 remains better than football mortality. In passing it is interesting to note that one of the 128 surviving MLB players became a centenarian in 2011 and remains alive as I write this in early 2012.

 

At this point we might begin to reflect on the results of these studies from the 1930 and 1950 seasons and perhaps focus on the very good mortality that baseball players have experienced and that has somewhat eluded their counterparts in football.  Indeed, if we reflect on the mortality experience of the general population, which includes the ill and disabled, we understand in the absence of other facts that any group of actively at work individuals will likely have better mortality than the population as a whole because they are healthy and able to work.  If we further consider that the individuals under consideration in this article are athletes, then it would be very surprising if such a select group who are engaged in exercise, training and discipline were to have unfavorable mortality relative to the general population.  Thus, it is almost a given that young MLB and NFL players under age 40 will have excellent actual mortality relative to the expected mortality that includes everyone. 

 

Another consideration is that athletes generally are not smokers.  Smoking, as actuaries know from their studies, is deadly and decreased life expectancy for young male lifetime smokers is measured in double-digit years.  Most of the young men in these sports, certainly in recent times, are not smokers.  For example, a recent survey reported that among MLB players, “…the prevalence of current cigarette smoking in our sample of athletes (9%) was much lower than the national prevalence rate for 18-25 old men (45%)…” [7].

 

Almost every study that has looked at longevity recognizes that better socio-economic status greatly enhances the chances for a longer life.  That is, individuals who have greater income and assets and/or more education live on average longer than those who don’t.  The overall population includes the poor, the less affluent and the less formally educated and all these factors mitigate in various ways against a longer life.  Salaries of MLB and NFL players back in 1930 and 1950 were very modest compared to those of today, but these athletes as a whole were upwardly mobile and economically better off than the poor and as such would be expected to have better mortality than the population.

 

Finally, even as these players age and leave professional sports, the fact that they have been conscious of health and into physical activity during their prime is an indication that they will be in a position to take care of themselves in the future better than someone who did not have their training and discipline.  For all of these reasons, the better mortality experienced by NFL and MLB athletes relative to the population is not surprising and is to be expected.  Why then have many sport fans so easily accepted the notion that football players have poor longevity?

 

I think it has to do with the rough physical contact nature of football.  Football players routinely suffer body blows and concussions, and this leads to the impression that their longevity must also be adversely affected.  Could this “common sense” explanation be the primary reason why baseball players have better mortality than football players?  Certainly from the data shown above it might be interpreted that the blows to body and mind experienced by football players in their 20’s and 30’s finally take their toll in terms of mortality during the senior years when warding off deterioration can no longer be sustained and the cumulative affect of the aging process leads to the increased mortality that football players have at age 70 and above.  In another decade of monitoring, we should be able to close out the mortality ratios on 1950 players and have a definite answer as to their average age at death in each sport.  Through December 31, 2010, NFL players have been dying 0.56 years younger than MLB players.

 

Moving on, Table 5 shows age-related mortality experience for 1980 NFL players where 1,441 men played for 28 teams, and Table 6 similar age-related experience for 1980 MLB players where 916 men played for 26 teams.  The observation period for these tables is 30 years, from January 1, 1981 through December 31, 2010.

 

Table 5: NFL Mortality Experience of 1,441 Men who played in 1980

 

Age               Actual   Expected     A/E                                                              

                     Deaths       Deaths

 

under 40             12         40.43     29.7%       

40-49                 28         54.71     51.2           

50-59                 38         62.91     60.4           

60 & over            5           8.34      60.0          

all ages               83       166.39     49.9

           

under 50            40         95.14     42.0           

under 60            78       158.05     49.4           

40 & over          71       125.96     56.4

 

 

Table 6: MLB Mortality Experience of the 916 Men who played in 1980

 

Age               Actual   Expected     A/E                                                              

                     Deaths       Deaths

 

under 40             10         22.45     44.6%       

40-49                   7         35.40     19.8           

50-59                 18         49.58     36.3           

60 & over            9         17.89      50.3          

all ages              44       125.31      35.1

           

under 50            17         57.85      29.4          

under 60            35       107.43      32.6          

40 & over          34       102.87      33.1

 

 

 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 December 31, 2010; and on average the NFL players have died 1.14 years younger than the MLB players.  Overall, the study results show that not only have the observed NFL and MLB players experienced better mortality than their counterparts in the general population but also that their mortality has been improving faster than population mortality.  For example, the under age 50 NFL mortality ratio has declined from 88.0% for 1930 players to 48.6% for 1950 players to 42.0% for 1980 players. 

 

However, there is a change in the mortality pattern between the two leagues from 1950 to 1980.  In 1980 the better mortality for MBL players occurs in the age bracket 40-49 where the mortality ratio for NFL players is 51.2% and only 19.8% for MLB players and the age bracket 50-59 where the mortality ratio is 60.4% for the NFL and 36.3% for MLB.  The size of the differences in the ratios at these ages were not seen in the 1950 experience; and this suggests the possibility that there may have been a change in either Major League Baseball or the National Football League between 1950 and 1980 that did not occur in the other league and that this change has affected the relative mortality between the two leagues. 

 

Certainly both sports changed significantly during the thirty years from 1950 to 1980 and during that time life expectancy for a male age 25 improved in the general population by nearly one year each decade increasing from 44.46 to 47.23.  During that time, baseball went from 16 teams located in the Northeast and Midwest to 26 teams across the United States and from 530 players to 916.  Traveling by jet planes and increased 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 similar 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 1980 black MLB players was much less, somewhere around 22%.  Given that black mortality was worse than white mortality as shown in the United States Life Tables for 1980 as developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one would expect football players to have worse mortality than baseball players just based on the racial composition of the two sports.  In 1950 the racial composition of both leagues was essentially white with only 10 MLB players and 19 NFL players of African American ancestry [8], making any racial impact on mortality experience minimal for 1950 players.

 

Obesity is another factor that has been shown to affect mortality rates and to decrease longevity.  Body mass index (BMI) is one popular measure of obesity.  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 age 40-59 between the two leagues.  In the general population high BMI correlates with high body fat, which is a risk factor for increased mortality.  In football players, however, high BMI may relate to increased muscularity rather than increased body fat.  Recent releases from NIOSH document their ongoing research into high BMI’s and diseases that affect NFL players. [9]

 

Whether it is racial composition, high BMIs, the physical contact of the sport, some other factor or a combination of these factors, the evidence presented here is that football players have good mortality but they are not likely to attain the more favorable level that baseball players have anytime soon.  In any case, this armchair actuary will be observing.

 

 

 

References:

[1]  www.odc.gov/niosh/pdfs/nflfactsheet.pdf

[2]  www.oldestlivingprofootball.com

[3]  www.jt-sw.com/football/pro/rosters.nsf

[4]  http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players

[5]  http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/NOTES/actstud.html, study # 120

[6]  www.baseball-almanac.com

[7]  www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc164901/

[8]  Pro Football Historical Abstract, Sean Lahman, p. 26

[9]  http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/category/cancer/

The author thanks Michael J. Cowell FSA, AIA for his suggestions regarding this article.

 

 

 

 

Email address in order to contact the author:      ordinaryamericancatholic@yahoo.com

 

 

 

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