Living Longer in the Trenches

The season is changing, the days are shorter, the weather cooler and school begins. But these changes are welcome by the majority of Americans, because it is time for their favorite sport to watch: football. There has been much discussion over the dangers of football, with concussions being the current focus, but is it really that dangerous of a sport?

I recently read a study by an actuary, Phillip Lehpamer, called “Skin in the Game” comparing the mortality rates of professional baseball and football players in 1930, 1950 and 1980 to the general population. The results showed that both football players and baseball players lived longer than the general population, with the greatest life expectancy for baseball players. The longevity of both groups is also improving faster than the general population. Could this be a sign that football is not detrimental to one’s health? The study went on to identify many other factors that could be at play here. Professional athletes are actively employed, more health conscious and have higher socioeconomic status, all factors that usually suggest a longer life expectancy. Is it a sign of the dangers of football that baseball players in the study have a longer life expectancy than football players? The study suggests it may be due to demographic features of the league, such as western league expansion, improved travel methods, the racial makeup of the league, or Body Mass Index (BMI). Whatever the case may be, there is just not enough information to come to a conclusion.

Lehpamer’s study reminded me of an article I had read in ESPN The Mag, comparing the likelihood of ailments (such as Heart Disease) of NFL players to the general population. The results strongly showed that NFL players were less likely to suffer from the ailments when compared to the general population, suggesting they are healthier despite the risks they undertake. I also recently came across an ESPN feature on the dangers of football and the media’s exploitation of the issues. The conclusion was to point out that there was not enough evidence to say that football was detrimental to one’s health.

The media often exaggerates and exploits the dangers of football by looking at isolated incidents. While broken bones, tears, concussions and more dramatically paralysis make the news, these unfortunate individuals are the minority. Millions of Americans play football every week without getting hurt. While I do sympathize for the unfortunate individuals who are hurt, I find it refreshing to see data showing that football may not be as dangerous as it is made out to be. It’s also exciting when two of my interests, actuarial science and sports, have a chance to intersect with one another.

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