Football Decimation

Football is by far America’s favorite sport to watch, and has been since the 60s. Football is also far less healthy than most sports.  For example, while Italian soccer players live longer than most folks, US football players live far shorter:

While U.S. life expectancy is 77.6 years … the average for NFL players is 55, 52 for linemen.

(HT Nancy Lebovitz.) Apparently:

The average NFL player plays just 3.52 seasons and loses two to three years off his life expectancy for every season played.

If true, this is an amazingly huge health harm, especially considering how much we regulate health harms in most areas.  It is far beyond the risk we’ll allow people to take on most jobs, even soldiers or astronauts.  And it is far beyond the risk we’d let customers accept in a consumer product.

Surely we can see football hurts players – we often see them carried off in on stretchers.  But I wonder: would we accept this harm nearly as much if we saw it all up close?  Players would suffer the same average loss if each season one out of ten players just dropped dead on the playing field!  (A dead 25 year old player loses 55-25 = 30 years, which is ten times the three years life lost per player per season.)

Would we really accept such carnage before our eyes?  And why do we regulate other health harms so strictly, yet so eagerly watch this decimation?

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  • Sohaib

    Surely the amount NFL players get paid plays into how much we empathize with them.

  • Nick

    Part of the explanation probably has to do with the fact that common sense morality does hold that small harms to many is as morally significant as great harms to a few. This surely has something to do with why we would be upset if one in 10 died each year (consolidated harm) rather than each losing 2-3 years of life expectancy each year.

    • Nick

      Does *not* hold…

  • Robert Koslover

    Is this cause or just correlation? What is the typical lifetime for men who are built like football players, eat like football players, have comparable genetics to football players, have similar wealth to football players, have similar educations to football players, etc? Has it been proven that these football players are predominantly dying of specific football-related injuries? Just askin’. Thanks.

    • Cyan

      The damage to football players’ brains can be spotted in autopsy — they look similar to people suffering Alzheimer’s disease, even when they die far younger than that average 55 years old. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it here.

  • Martin

    U.S. life expectancy is 77.6 years … the average for NFL players is 55. 77.6-55 =22.6

    “The average NFL player plays just 3.52 seasons and loses two to three years off his life expectancy for every season played.”

    3.52 * 2.5 = 8.8


    • Chris

      My guess was that the average life expectancy for college football players (or more generally the kind of people who get drafted into the NFL) is already in the 60s range, so pro ball only drops it the additional 9 years.

    • mobile

      The population of NFL veterans is more more male and more black than the general U.S. population — those two factors alone will drag down the baseline life expectancy for football players a lot.

  • ardyanovich

    Since the average football player spends most of their football career playing high school and college football (up to eight years), a whole lot of the damage attributed to playing in the NFL is was probably caused from high school or college football.

    • If damage to college students and high school students can be statistically verified, shouldn’t we be a whole lot more worried about this aspect than about the NFL players?

      I could even make a case for there being a fame-attractant, only-main-characters-are-real-people effect in this having not been raised earlier.

      • Buck Farmer

        Agreed. NFL players you could argue are consenting adults. College kids maybe too.

        fame-attractant, only-main-characters-are-real-people effect

        Not familiar with this. Link or elaboration?

    • It looks like the standard tournament phenomenon: huge rewards for those at the top, disproportionately many people competing for them. This just as the added cost of a shortened lifespan.

      For comparison, if plastic surgery could make women extremely desirable to billionaires, but at the cost of 15+ years of lifespan, would we expect to see lots of women make that tradeoff anyway? Would it provoke outrage?

      • Buck Farmer

        There was a study I read about in the Economist two years ago discussing the relationship between lifespan and whether your species is polygamous or monogamous. The hypothesis being that striving to win tournements ended up taking a significant toll on male health.

    • Jess Riedel

      High school and non-Division-1 College Football (i.e. 99% of college players) is tremendously safer than the NFL. NFL players are almost a different species in terms of size and speed. The more intense collisions lead to a higher concussion rate, and (most importantly) the size of the human beings is correlated with heart failure, diabetes, etc.

      Since a huge fraction (of order 10%) of the US male population plays high school football, we’d certainly know if it caused people to lose two years of their life.

      There are only about 2000 current NFL players, but there are a *million* of high school football players at any given time.

      • Cecil

        I can’t find a cite now, but I remember reading at one point that college football players are generally up to 50 pounds heavier than NFL players, and that they need to slim down for speed reasons when they make the pro leagues.

      • Jess Riedel

        Cecil, if that’s true it definitely only applies to division-1 players. Again, this is an insignificant fraction of the total football playing population in the United States.

  • Kat

    How about race car drivers? Every so often we *do* see such carnage before our TV eyes and it hasn’t seemed to have much effect.

    • ad

      I found this giving stats on F1 deaths:

      In the 20 years from 1954-1974, 17 drivers were killed.
      In the 20 years from 1974-1994, 7 drivers were killed.

      None have been killed since.

      But in a sense the audiance never really saw anyone die – all you could see was something spectacular happen to a car. You found out if the driver was OK later.

      • vali

        I think the lack of deaths is because, as time went by, there was more and more emphasis on driver protection, as well as better(more effective) driver protection(materials, simulations).

        Witness the rule for 2010 about no more re-fueling during the race, it’s because there were several incidents where fuel spilled during re-fueling was ignited(as well as one or two incidents where the drivers left with the hose still attached to the car)

  • J. Cross

    Well, we know what football does to players’ brains. I’m not sure we know how much the football playing itself is reducing lifespan.

    Either way, fans aren’t aware of it. If they were, I think many fewer parents would allow their kids to play high school football.

    In fact, in light of all the evidence about brain injuries how long is it before lawsuits/school boards eliminate HS football altogether? Will this happen? Or is HS football too big of a part of the culture and we’ll go on pretending that this isn’t happening?

    Without HS football, college football and professional football would vanish from the scene within a generation.

    • Jess Riedel

      Your mixing up the dangers of professional football and high school football. They might as well be different sports.

  • I’ll echo Robert K. I can think of another couple reasons the life expectancy might be lower:

    1. Steriod use.
    2. Selection effect, i.e. lots of big, fat guys.

  • Aron

    Regulation is for poor people. Let’s worry more about the fans who face increased consumption of beer and kielbasa.

  • Alard

    Football players are men. According the first site I found the life expectancy of U.S. men is 74.37 years.
    Again according to the first site I found the life expectancy of African-American men is 66.1 years.

  • Alex

    The wake of the destruction doesn’t end with NFL football players; don’t forget the harms accrued by high school and college players who aren’t paid for their play (and often lose the opportunity to ever earn money for playing due to injuries).

    “(A dead 25 year old player loses 55-25 = 30 years, which is ten times the three years life lost per player per season.)”

    There’s a reason why we would find this more abhorrent than the current situation, beyond the idea of a distinction between concentrated and diffuse harms that was discussed above. For one, losing 30 years at age 25 is probably worse than 10 people losing 3 years at age 52. Why?

    (1) The 3 years lost from ages 52-55 are probably of a lower quality than any of the 10 3-year-periods lost by a dead 25 year old.

    (2) By the time the average NFL player loses dies early due to the damages of playing football, he has already enjoyed many of the benefits of playing football — fame, money, etc. A dead 25 year old will have little chance to cash in on the benefits but will accrue all of the harms.

    So yeah, we probably wouldn’t tolerate such carnage before our TV eyes. Then again, such carnage would be worse than the status quo.

    The fact that we accept the NFL and reject other dangerous jobs or dangerous products people would willingly sell and purchase probably says more about paternalistic safety and health regulations than it does about the NFL. Think about the alternative — how many of these (meaningfully) uneducated, unskilled young men would lead better lives if you took the opportunity to play football away from them? Or are they all irrational for choosing to play?

  • What “we’ll” tolerate is culturally shaped. I don’t think Americans would want to see 1 in 10 football players drop dead on the field rather than have the long slow damage that kills them 20 years later, but the ancient Romans were delighted to see deaths in the colosseum.

    Possibly related: Torture and Democracy says that democracies develop methods of torture that don’t leave visible marks.

    I do think that for modern people, there’s a pleasure in seeing what looks like fake violence (as though people were animated characters) even though people really get injured. Professional wrestling is another example.

    As for whether there are other factors (like weight and steroid use) playing into the death rate, what’s the longevity for top body builders? Also, a lot of those guys wouldn’t have gotten nearly so big if it weren’t for football. And they wouldn’t be using so many pain-killers if it weren’t for their injuries.

    Any theories about why Americans love football while the rest of the world loves the presumably less destructive soccer? Is it just a founder effect (sport with sufficient intensity comes along during a window of opportunity)?

    I have a notion that part of the pleasure of football is seeing huge strong scary guys taking assaults from a safe vantage point, but I don’t really understand spectator sports. Maybe it’s the more respectable stance of identifying your preferred batch of big strong scary guys.

    • SG

      Any theories about why Americans love football while the rest of the world loves the presumably less destructive soccer?

      Actually, American football came out of rugby. This is probably the better comparison. It would be interesting to see comparisons of the life expectancies ot rugby players to their respective national averages.

  • nazgulnarsil

    doesn’t extra life expectancy have decreasing marginal utility given the sharp decline in standard of living towards the end?

    ostensibly this is just bringing those crappy years closer, but it is my experience that most risk takers do not think like this (i.e. smokers, told that smoking reduces life expectancy “yeah but those are the crappy years).

  • There may be at least some correlation/causality problems here. NFL football players are enormous, and their bodies create an unusually large burden on internal organs (heart, kidney’s, etc).

  • a little research on how accurate people’s estimates of lifespan based on BMI are.

    Anyone have some actual numbers on what ex-football players weigh at death, and how their age/weight compares to the general population?

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  • Pat

    Selection bias. 350 lb people die young. Control for weight and soccer players and NFL players will have similar length lives.

  • Here’s a chart of BMI vs. mortality rates (page down).

    Anyone have information about how tall football players are, and what they’re apt to weigh after years of retirement? Whether ex-football players who aren’t fat die at the same rate as those who are? Whether muscle counts as weight for purposes of mortality rates?

    “Everyone knows” that ex-football players die because they’re fat isn’t information.

  • tom

    You’re not a great student, and you probably wouldn’t be no matter how hard you try. But you are good at football, and if you play you can live like a god in high school, and have sex with the hottest girls and be popular. Then if you are good enough, you can live like a god in college, and have sex with the hottest coeds and be popular. Then, if you are exceptionally good, you can play professionally and have a few more years of living like a god and having sex with hot women. You will fall off the path at some point, and only a few of you will make this into an entire life. But while you are playing, your life will be better than the lives of almost every other guy your age. And if you are personable, you’ll make friends and contacts that may help you after football. So, more time trying to get a B in high school geometry and English, or more time on the field?

    This is a lot better than what the military promises, and we let people sign up for that at 18.

    I cannot understand how people so consistently underestimate the value to men–especially young men (insert picture of Tiger Woods) but really all men (insert picture of Norman Mailer and almost any male Senator)–of getting more and better women.

    Is this an example of a bias? People consistently underestimate (at least in public discussions) the value of vaulting yourself up the ranks in the ongoing competitions for women. Is it because the guys writing the papers aren’t the guys who have won that way? Is it because no survey responses can show the difference between the winners and losers since both have normed themselves to the kind of options they have?

    Maybe guys can win girls by playing touch football when tackle is outlawed as an obscenity. Basketball and baseball are pretty good for that. But I’d guess a big part of the appeal of football is the combat.

    • Buck Farmer

      Soccer players in the rest of the world can bang as many desirable women as American footballers and their health outcomes are better so they’ll probably be virile longer.

      Assortative competition through soccer doesn’t seem to leave their societies missing anything particularly, so maybe we’re just stuck in a bad equilibrium?

      • tom

        Buck, you are focusing on some idea of society’s interest. I’m talking about the individual guy’s interest. The current equilibrium in favor of violent football with large teams is not bad if you are built like a football player and not able to hit a curveball or shoot baskets especially well.

        The more interesting question is how many kids who have the skills to play either football, baseball or basketball in high schoo, college, etc…, ALREADY choose to skip football because of the injury risks. I bet it happens all the time. That means football players may be guys who have actually made the choice to pick the more dangerous sport.

        And, off point, but I would like to make an equivalent of Godwin’s law that says no one is allowed to bring up the possibility of professional soccer succeeding in America. It won’t!

      • Buck Farmer

        tom, why should I care about some anonymous random guy? I was agreeing with your hypothesis and posing another question about its implications for something I might care about which is society generally.

        So assuming that there is pretty significant overlap between the European and American genetic distributions, there’s no reason to believe that Americans would have more of these guys that would rationally choose to specialize in a dangerous sport. So what do these guys do in Europe? Is their a lingering injustice where scores of big European males don’t have a suitable arena to compete for the affection of desirable females?

      • anon

        So what do these guys do in Europe?

        Rugby union is considered a more masculine sport than soccer or basketball. It’s fairly popular in Europe, and not nearly as dangerous as American football.

    • Jackson

      But while you are playing, your life will be better than the lives of almost every other guy your age.

      Wow! How Aristotelian.


      I believe the day that Cheerleaders become socially unacceptable (not legislated against by some totalitarian regime) is a fairly sure indicator that the global economy is making a meaningful recovery… Probably won’t happen mind.

      • Jackson

        I cannot understand how people so consistently underestimate the value to men–especially young men (insert picture of Tiger Woods) but really all men (insert picture of Norman Mailer and almost any male Senator)–of getting more and better women.

        This is sarcasm right?
        I don’t think Tiger Wood’s family is a very happy place right now… oh but perhaps they’ll be stronger and better for it – if it doesn’t kill you… survival of the fittest etc

  • Anthony

    A football player, ultimate fighter, etc. could claim they’re getting more out of their 55 years than a normal person does in 77.

    While a smoker would have a harder time saying the same, despite their similar decrease in average life span.

    Without experiencing the feeling one has after leaving all of their hard work on the field, I believe it’s difficult to empathize with why one could be getting more out of their 55 years.

  • tom

    Buck, if you are thinking of soccer as a public substitute for football, then by your own terms you are thinking of soccer players as getting the social position that the football players would have had. And soccer players are not the same types of guys as football players (shorter, smaller, quicker) so it’s not as if most football players could choose soccer.

    But I would also repeat that it isn’t useful to talk about professional soccer becoming popular in the US. We already have hugely popular non-violent sports like basketball and, for people who want a lot less scoring, baseball. Football’s appeal and role in the US may lie in its violence. So not only may we not replace football with soccer, we may not even be able to neuter football and keep it popular.

    • Buck Farmer

      Soccer’s popularity in the U.S. aside…

      …I repeat, what are the wouldbe football players doing in Europe?

      • tom

        Buck, I’d guess living normal lives, with normal options. Some may play basketball if they’re the right mix of tall and quick (like Dirk Nowitzki). And some may have done well in other high school sports. But most are not getting the huge social boost they might have gotten if there was a sport that had a top position in the pecking order. Also, football has much bigger teams than other sports, so it gives its benefits to a larger group.

        And my main point continues to be that if we are basing our outrage about concussions and early death on some sympathy for poor dumb football players, we may be failing to appreciate the social upside. It can be a very big deal to have more girls like and want you. Why does nobody want to give that value, or at least let people choose for themselves what value to give it?

        And we may also miss that kids and their parents are aware of the downside. Most people who choose football over other sports do so knowing that football causes more injuries, and lots of people stay out of peewee football and high school football for that reason.

      • Buck Farmer

        But the population of desirable girls is more or less fixed relative to guys. So all we’re doing is shifting the benefits around.

        Is this equity increasing?
        If it increases equity, then is it worth the cost?

      • Buck Farmer

        Does increasing the number of tournements or increasing the number of vectors that can be competed on in tournements increase equity of outcomes?

        I don’t know enough of the math behind networks and tournements to say, but I figure someone in OB readership might.

      • tom

        Buck, is it worth the cost to whom? I’m saying that it may well be worth the cost to the football players themselves, if we accept the idea that men may put a great value on increasing their chances with women.

        People in the thread are talking about football players as a victim class that needs to be protected. I’m saying that’s naive and simplistic.

      • Buck Farmer

        I’m not too concerned about the cost to individual football players. It’s worthwhile to the, and I get that.

        But since the same number of beautiful women will get banged in either the world with football or without, it isn’t clear to me why society should screw up its life expectancy by having masses and masses of its males involved in costly tournements that almost all of them will lose.

        Why should society care about its life expectancy you might ask? I dunno. From a libertarian standpoint, it doesn’t matter. From most other standpoints, it probably does. I’m leaning towards the latter.

        Are you arguing that all forms of status competition are morally equivalent regardless of their comparative wastefulness?

      • tom

        Buck, I think you’re stating the concern honestly when you talk about society’s interest in “its” life expectancy.

        I don’t think society has the interest you are talking about. We shouldn’t be thinking of people who play football as a class of victims.

        And I still don’t get why people don’t see that popularity and sex are THE issues for why people may choose to do things like football. Pro football money is not it–almost no football players make real money doing it. And a free college education is not it because very few football players use an athletic scholarship that way. It’s having cooler friends and getting more and better girls.

      • anon

        “[w]e shouldn’t be thinking of people who play football as a class of victims.”

        Huh? If Buck Farmer is right, then football is a tragedy of the commons, and football players are most certainly victims of this state of affairs.

  • Steve Sailer, as usual, has some interesting thoughts on why soccer is so popular around the world, but not in America:
    Basically, throughout the 20th century only America could afford the equipment and separate offensive and defensive squads required by American football.

  • Tedderick

    I’m shocked to see this article coming from OCB instead of the MSM. This is the kind of correlation != causality that trips up the MSM, and OCB has to pick up the pieces.

  • Brandon W. Holmes

    Most things we are not OK with allowing people to take on high levels of risk in don’t pay an average of $770,000 a year. We don’t want the plumber to take a lot of risk because we know he can’t retire and live well for the rest of his long life off of three year’s salary. Football players on the other hand make more in those three seasons than most people make in 30 years of work: we are consequently less concerned about them having a few less years to enjoy that income.

    • anon

      We don’t want the plumber to take a lot of risk because we know he can’t retire and live well for the rest of his long life off of three year’s salary.

      If that’s the real issue, why don’t plumbers (and dangerous jobs in general) have mandatory accident/life insurance? And yes, workman’s comp effectively works as an insurance policy, but self-employed workers are not going to be covered by it.

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  • Singularity7337

    Well, stereotypically, American Football players are more intelligent than most. Perhaps it’s a shame that some of that intelligence may be reduced by concussions.

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    I have run across claims that all that protective gear actually makes football more dangerous, because it allows the other guy to hit you harder.

    So the dangers in football may be caused by the the safety culture, rather than being in spite of it.

  • Doug S.

    Boxing, too, is known to cause brain damage…

  • Mankhool

    Umm. It’s all the steroids and other shit they put into their bodies to get into and stay in the pro ranks. Duh.

  • Greg

    Since the majority of footballer players are African-American men, why isn’t the African-American male death rate the standard used to compare against the pro football death rate?

    And have you recorded every death of a pro football player, or just some?

  • Rock stars seem to die young also.

    CBS News correspondent Larry Miller reports a new study, which charted the lives of 1,050 American and European music artists between 1965 and 2005, has found they are more than twice as likely to die young than the general population.

    I have a theory that for some people lots of money makes them die younger. IMO this even shows up in the fact that parts of Scotland have a lower male life expectancy than people in 3rd world countries. Make one wonder if a welfare state allows one to not work and drink oneself to death.

    • I should have included the following:

      One hundred stars died during the study, which showed slightly better life expectancy for rockers in the United States than Europe. The average age of death for Americans was 42, whereas their European cousins only made it to 35, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation.

  • Phil

    Football damages brains. I don’t know if this causes shorter lifespan. Do boxers have shorter lifespans?

    In mice, dietary or genetic alterations that make the mice grow larger make their lives shorter. Genetic alterations, or caloric restriction, that makes them smaller, including making them produce fewer growth hormones, make them live longer.

    Football linemen are gigantic, and probably ALL of them take growth hormones, making them larger still, and likely damaging their hearts.

    You should write an OB post about attitudes towards steroids, btw. Football players and other athletes take a wide variety of performance enhancing drugs, several of which can easily kill them. Growth hormone enlarges the heart, disrupting its timing; and the increased body mass increases load on the heart. Vicoden, which football players and bodybuilders take for pain, kills people every year. Drugs routinely used for performance enhancement that can easily kill users, where the fatal dose for one person can be the same as the effective dose for another person, include EPO, insulin, and a thermogenic drug that I forget the name of. The most-dangerous sports drug is a diuretic that bodybuilders use to make them look lean, which I forget the name of, which continues to kill bodybuilders, yet is never demonized in the press.

    Yet people always focus on steroids. The most dangerous aspect of steroids is that oral steroids are toxic to the kidney and liver, in the same way that aspirin is. Injectable steroids may be the only performance-enhancing drug that have not been demonstrated to be dangerous in reasonable doses. (Neither have they been demonstrated to be safe for long-term use. They just haven’t been studied much.)

  • Ryan Vann

    Lost in all this is the fact that football players are paid significantly less than athletes in other sports on average. The players league aught to demand higher wages as a result of job hazard. I also think college players should be paid.

    With that said, there are a lot of selection bias issues going on here. First, football players are generally larger than your average man (even the smaller players); larger people are more prone to various health conditions. Secondly, many players are black, and black people are known to have lower life expectancies. All that granted, it should be pretty obvious football is a physically demanding and damaging sport, it would be no surprise that life expectancies are lower for football players than say a yoga instructor.

    Pro-wrestling, though not a sport, has even uglier life expectancies.

  • evan

    I am an offensive linemen at a D-1 program and let me just say football is a tough sport and we like it. Research shows relating to the head injuries, offensive and defensive linemen hitting is like getting in a 35mph car wreck. Linemen life expectancy is so much lower than that of an average male is due to the fact that we take an enormous beating day in and day out. It is not solely because we are 320 lbs. I eat healthy 6 out of 7 days a week, so not all of eat out andf eat buffets everyday. We live and play with injuries that will send many people to the hospital (I.e. Broken toes, fingers, torn ligaments, strained muscles etc). We choose to play this game because we love it and speaking for myself I like the pain I endure.

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    Let’s also recognize the difference between life span and expectancy. Life span is how long people actually lived based on numbers after death. Life expectancy is how long experts think people will live. It’s an estimate based on gathering data and forming opinions. My research suggests the experts could be a tad off and perhaps are raising concern for the general good of focusing on better health (e.g. less obesity). I also think life span records of NFL players over recent decades should be taken into account when concluding life expectancy. Granted, my methods of research are far simpler and far cheaper than those of the NIOSH, for example. I’m not a doctor or even a nutrition expert, but check out some data and make your own decisions.