Last Thursday, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell published an informal study of mortality rates among professional football and baseball players. The results were surprising: Among the 3,088 ex-football players who played for parts of at least five seasons between 1959 and 1988, 12.8 percent had died; in a sample of 1,494 baseball players active during the same era, the death rate was 15.9 percent.
The study was meant to serve as a clarification or maybe a rebuke of a similar study published last spring. That one, conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (and then peer-reviewed), compared mortality among retired football players and nonathletes matched for age and race and found that the ex-athletes were dying about half as often as one might expect. In other words, the health risks associated with playing football were being more than outweighed by the benefits of being a pro athlete—excellent training and nutrition, a good salary, top-quality medical care, and so on.
We know that other sports confer survival benefits to their athletes, too—a study of more than 5,000 Italian soccer players who were active at some point between 1975 and 2003 found a reduced mortality of almost one-third. But the bigger issue for Barnwell and just about everyone else who saw those NIOSH data was how they might relate to football’s concussion panic. What do the mortality numbers mean, asks Barnwell, for "the group of retired [NFL] players that had spent the past two years launching lawsuits against their former employer"—i.e., the ones who have alleged a league-wide conspiracy to conceal the long-term effects of brain damage?
If the Grantland study had shown that, comparing "apples to apples," football players die younger than baseball players, we would all have assumed that head injuries were a major reason why. But Barnwell's numbers went in the opposite direction and left us with a perplexing question: Why might baseball, the gentleman's game, be more deadly than football over the long term?
It could be that cumulative wear-and-tear is worse for your health than acute injuries. Football players get dinged multiple times per game, but their careers tend to be quite short—3.5 years, on average—and each season comprises just 16 to 20 games. Baseball players are less vulnerable to injuries on the field, but they're asked to perform 10 times as often, and their careers tend to last 60 percent longer.
Or maybe the difference in mortality rates has more to do with nonathletic behaviors. Football players don't shorten their lives with cigarettes, for example: A 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that just 0.2 percent of NFL athletes smoke, compared with 30.5 percent of equivalent nonathletes. Meanwhile, a 2003 survey of Major League Baseball players found that about 36 percent are regular users of chewing tobacco or snuff.
The link between smoking and high blood pressure may explain why professional football players are half as likely as baseball players to have high blood pressure, despite being larger and heavier overall. And this comparative risk factor begins long before players make it to the professional leagues: One study looked at the use of chewing tobacco among varsity athletes in California and found a prevalence of 52 percent in college baseball versus 26 percent in college football. (Despite recent efforts at a sport-wide ban, MLB still allows its players to use chewing tobacco during games, so long as they don't carry the tobacco in their uniform pockets or spit while giving pregame and postgame interviews.)