Barnwell: Comparing mortality rates in baseball and football

From Bill Barnwell at on August 16, 2012, with mention of SABR members Bill Lee and Sean Lahman:

In May, the National Football League shared some surprising news with the same group of retired players that had spent the past two years launching lawsuits against their former employer: The vast majority of them are living longer than the general population. A study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that NFL players from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were dying far less frequently than men of similar ages and races from the general population. The study — initially commissioned by the NFL in 1990, released in 1994, and then updated in 2007 — quickly became national news, as it arrived just days after the suicide of former Chargers star Junior Seau.


Although the NIOSH study did an excellent job of comparing NFL players’ cardiovascular vitality to that of the general public, the headline-stealing takeaway about players living longer than members of the general population was a comparison of apples and oranges. If you’re trying to figure out whether the mortality rates of NFL players are linked to their occupation, you need to compare apples to apples — you need to compare football players to American residents of similar size, with similar athleticism and access to health care. There’s a sample of people that mostly fits that definition: baseball players. While football players have consistently outweighed baseball counterparts by about 35 pounds over the past 50 years, their athletic backgrounds, earnings potential, and access to health care are far more similar than the relationship between professional athletes and the general population.


Baseball has a much richer history of independent historical research than football, primarily thanks to the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). To verify deaths within our player pool, we cross-checked their information against work by SABR researcher Bill Lee, which we found both in his book The Baseball Necrology and on his website, We verified statistical and physical information against the database and the publicly downloadable Lahman database.

Read the full article here:

Originally published: August 16, 2012. Last Updated: August 16, 2012.