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March 1, 2005 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Supersized in the NFL Analyzing data from the 2003-2004 season, researchers say "more than a quarter of NFL players had a body mass index that qualified them as class 2 obesity" -- equivalent to a 6-foot man weighing between 260 and 300 pounds. Even those players weren't the biggest ones: the study counted more than 60 players -- 3 percent -- with body mass indexes placing them into class 3 obesity, with individual weights approaching 400 pounds. "I don't know what's going on in the minds of coaches", said lead researcher Dr. Joyce Harp, an assistant professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Players' growing girth "is a major concern," said Dr. Arthur Roberts, a former NFL quarterback and retired heart surgeon (.pdf file) whose Living Heart Foundation works with the players' union to evaluate heart-related health risks faced by current and retired players. More inside.
posted by matteo (42 comments total)

 
The NFL called the study bogus for using players' body-mass index, a height-to-weight ratio that doesn't consider body muscle versus fat. The players' union said that despite the familiar sight of bulging football jerseys, there's no proof that obesity is rampant in the league.
But former defensive tackle John Jurkovic said he's seen plenty of evidence that players have gotten not just bigger but sometimes fatter, "big as houses" in recent years because of league pressure to intimidate opponents and win.
"The NFL teams want it because it's working," said Jurkovic, who played for Green Bay, Cleveland and Jacksonville before retiring in 2000.
The theory is that bigger men, especially linemen and defensive players, are better blockers and harder to move.
But the study results suggest that bigger players don't make a team more successful. There was no relationship between teams' average player BMI and their ranking in 2003-04, the season studied. Arizona had the highest average BMI but also the worst record in its division.
posted by matteo at 2:10 PM on March 1, 2005


In training they trust
Every day, the Valley's best-known trainers work with some of sports' biggest stars, who sweat it out alongside aspiring athletes and weekend warriors.
You might see Donovan McNabb, the winning quarterback in the NFC championship game. Or Curse-buster Curt Schilling of the Red Sox. Or NFL prospects preparing for the scouting combine.
Gyms require their personal trainers to be certified by one of a number of entities. But a person doesn't have to be certified to offer personal training advice. And many experts worry about what ideas, and what substances, might be passed along.
posted by matteo at 2:15 PM on March 1, 2005


Awesome, awesome post matteo. Outstanding.
posted by Quartermass at 2:33 PM on March 1, 2005


What it comes down to is games like football and basketball are played (at the pro level) mostly by people with statistically abnormal dimensions of height or size. No matter how good you are, you won't get on a pro team without those unusual physical attributes (except for a couple of positions like QB or kicker).

On the other hand in a game like soccer, skill is far more important than any size factor, in fact some pretty short people are very good at it.
posted by beagle at 2:39 PM on March 1, 2005


as a 6ft, 260 pound man, I've often found myself frustrated with the idea of BMI. According to the charts, I'm supposed to weigh less than 200 pounds. I haven't been that small since the 9th grade. I'm tired of seeing all the literature that says I'm "morbidly obese"....I exercise regulary and lift weights three times a week. Am I carrying a few extra pounds? Yes. Am I a fatty fatty 2X4? I think not. So why does every article scream at me that I'm flirting with death by having a BMI over 30?
posted by cosmicbandito at 2:49 PM on March 1, 2005


equivalent to a 6-foot man weighing between 260 and 300 pounds

Wow. I am 6 feet tall and weigh 155 pounds. Two of me could fit inside one of those theoretical people. One of me would control each side, just like that movie "All Of Me", except not at all funny.
posted by davejay at 2:51 PM on March 1, 2005


Cosmic, you have to remember that the BMI judgements make the assumption that exercise levels are average. Someone who doesn't work out at all is closer to average than someone like yourself, if by "exercise regularly" you mean every two or three days.
posted by davejay at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2005


beagle, Even for a QB, it helps to be somewhat tall so you can see over the front line. Running backs come in various sizes, I think, but they all need to be fast.

Basketball simply requires a different skill set based on size. Although it is typically dominated by abnormally tall people, it's not a rule. See: Earl Boykins. There's no real reason why the league couldn't be shorter, on average, except that most NBA GMs will take a 7 footer with no skills over a 6 footer with a lot of skills, because the prevailing wisdom is that "you can't teach height". Of course, most NBA GMs are morons. (See: New York Knicks).

However, I don't see why it's surprising that most sports athletes are, well, athletic. What's sad -- and I think this is what matteo's post is getting at -- is the extraordinary and increasingly unhealthy lengths to which athletes are willing to go to transform their bodies into the ideal shape for their sport or position. The root cause is basically the same as with steroid abuse. The possible consequences are that most athletes will suffer severe health problems (and possibly premature death) as a result of all these measures. The competition to keep up with the other athletes who are doing it makes things worse. And the fans are complicit in this to the extent that they don't care as long as they get more homeruns / touchdowns / dunks.

I'm pretty sure that ESPN.com ran some articles on this topic recently. I can't find them, but I assume that they were the typical shrill topic-du-jour ESPN style, so matteo's more detailed links are greatly appreciated.

davejay, which side of Warren Sapp do you want? (warning: atrocious Flash, Warren Sapp content)
posted by casu marzu at 3:00 PM on March 1, 2005


I just joined a health club, where they measured my body fat by using a body fat caliper in three areas on my body and then using those figures along with (I'm assuming) my height and weight to determine my body fat percentage. This measurement would appear to be a better indicator of over all health than the BMI.
posted by boymilo at 3:07 PM on March 1, 2005


In order to be one of the world's best at anything, you typically do have to really give your life over to it. This is true if you're a football player, a javelin thrower, a scrabble player, or a toothbrush salesman.

Is it any surprise that this includes risking your health in addition to sacrificing an enormous quantity of your free time?
posted by aubilenon at 3:10 PM on March 1, 2005


These guys are heavy, but surely they're also exceptional athletes? Else they wouldn't be on the team. I bet many of them are fitter than guys half their size. I'm pretty sure that there are 300 lb guys out there who can run 100 yards much faster than me, for instance (6ft/166). I do acknowledge the argument that this may be bought through steroid abuse, but perhaps much of it isn't, either. FWIW, the line-to-line confrontations with 300lb guys hurling themselves at each other, remind me as much of sumo as of anything else, and sumo is a sport devoted to large guys.

I am however not a USAian, and do not really understand NFL that much.
posted by carter at 3:17 PM on March 1, 2005


I don't buy the argument that BMI is an accurate measure for health or fitness - at best it might be considered a preliminary estimate. A simple height/weight ratio says nothing of body fat %, muscle strength, or cardiovascular health. The intense training of athletes does raise questions about longer-term health, but I don't think BMI is the best way to look at these questions.

People who fall into obesity on the BMI scale and who aren't physically "fit" in the sense that athletes are must suffer from a whole slew of other health problems. I agree with aubilenon that pro athletes probably are sacrificing time (and perhaps, some long-term health) to excel in their respective sports while they can. A bit like using some extra lifetime gas during their 20s...
posted by swank6 at 3:40 PM on March 1, 2005


cosmicbandito, I would just like to say thanks for coining the phrase "Fatty, fatty 2x4". I think I'll be using that in a haiku later on today, it'll work perfectly as the middle line in my haiku sandwich!

According to the BMI, I'm overweight at five nine and 180 pounds. It doesn't take into account the fact that I carry alot more muscle than a typical man. So, take it with a grain of salt.

BMI may work on populations but it fails pretty quickly when applied to the individual. Or, as swank6 notes, it can be used a preliminary filter for health.

And pro athletes definitely sacrifice lifespan and quality of life for the game. Look at Willie McCovey, Ken Caminiti and Lyle Alzado to name just a few.

Nice post, matteo!
posted by fenriq at 3:47 PM on March 1, 2005


You only have to look at NFL film from 20 or 30 years ago to see that the average player has got bigger. I don't believe you can explain this through coaches simply selecting bigger players. There is a rampant drug problem in the NFL, and the league is as reluctant to do anything about it as MLB.

European soccer is not immune from this either. Only today I read that the liklihood is that Juventus were doping during the 90s. Leagues simply have to take this as seriously as athletics now does. First offence, a 2 year ban. Second offence, a life ban. Random drug testing throughout both the season and the off-season.
posted by salmacis at 3:50 PM on March 1, 2005


What swank6 said.

I know that these athletes are training constantly, but I have my doubts about the fitness of a 400 pound linebacker. I mean, can you truly call those guys "healthy" if, when they turn 30, they start falling apart?

On the flip side, I don't think I'm a paragon of fitness, but according to my BMI, my weight in in the 10th percentile. This is ridiculous, because I'm pretty, uh, womanly looking, and I don't need to gain any weight. (Guess I have particularly small bones or something.) I may need to gain muscle, however, which is an entirely different issue than the BMI stuff...
posted by Specklet at 3:55 PM on March 1, 2005


Many of these players are discovering it's fairly easy to scale your weight up, but bones and joints stubbornly refuse to scale. The wear and tear in football is bad enough without the extra body weight, it can only get worse with it.

It's a high price to pay for a few years of glory.
posted by tommasz at 4:13 PM on March 1, 2005


It's a high price to pay for a few years of glory.

Amen. There were several very young cyclists (in their early twenties) who died recently from heart problems brought on by the use of EPO and similar blood doping products. Cheating is rampant at all levels of sports.

I have seen a quote that purports to come from a researcher who asked high school and college athletes a question something like"If you could take a performance enhancing drug that would guarantee a gold medal (or similar) but would take ten years of your life expectancy, would you do it?" Supposedly something like 80% responded in the affirmative. This comes up frequently in the cycling groups that I frequent, but a google search doesn't turn anything up.
posted by fixedgear at 4:23 PM on March 1, 2005


It's a high price to pay for a few years of glory.

And an enormous paycheck. Especially for guys who might not have much else in the way of prospects.

Not saying it negates the central point of the post, but let's be clear about motivations.
posted by jonmc at 4:27 PM on March 1, 2005


I have not read the paper, but from the AP article:

"Almost all the players qualified as overweight..."

Com'on, do we need more justification than this to say the work is crap. If that is truely a conclusion from the article, I am suprised it is being published in a peer review journal - a prestigious one at that! I do believe that ~50% of NFLers are overweight (mainly linemen), but quaterbacks, running backs, wide recievers, defensive backs , KICKERS (with Janakowski as the exception) - no way.
posted by batou_ at 4:42 PM on March 1, 2005


There's 53 or so players on the roster. A quarter as class 2 obese - well that's your linemen.

There is a rampant drug problem in the NFL, and the league is as reluctant to do anything about it as MLB.
Compared to what? A first positive for steropids gets you suspended a quarter of the season. I believe in MLB it's more like 5 games out of 162.
posted by poodlemouthe at 5:00 PM on March 1, 2005


I have my doubts about the fitness of a 400 pound linebacker.

I have my doubts about his efficacy.
posted by yerfatma at 5:09 PM on March 1, 2005


This seemingly respectable article says that NFL players have a life expectancy in the low to mid-60s. Includes a defensive end explaining that life as a big man in the NFL is a "Faustian bargain."

The day the Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl a few years ago, ESPN interviewed Earl Campbell, one of the NFL's all time great RBs. He can hardly walk now, and he isn't really that old.

They showed video of it to Jerome Bettis, who has a similar aggressive running style to Campbell's. Bettis was visibly moved by it.

But Campbell expressed no regrets-- even said that if he had to do it over again, he would still try to knock a linebacker back for an extra couple yards instead of running out of bounds without taking a hit. And Bettis is rumored to be coming back, again, next year.
posted by ibmcginty at 5:24 PM on March 1, 2005


I live in what could be referred to as the retirement capital of the U.S. (S.W. Fl.)
I have noticed something down here.
Lots and lots of 'old' people here. (70+)
Two things you DON'T see.
1-Old 'fat' people.
2-Old 'tall' people.
And I keep looking for a sign because I'm a 'tall' close to being 'old' person.
Uh, oh.
posted by notreally at 5:33 PM on March 1, 2005


didn't average height go up fairly recently (30-40 years)? it makes sense that there are few really tall old men now not because they all died young but because fewer really tall people were there to begin with 50 years ago, I guess.
posted by matteo at 5:58 PM on March 1, 2005


> It's a high price to pay for a few years of glory.

The charcoal is killing us, but what matter? The fewer the years, the greater the glory!

-- Marie-Antoine "5000 butterfat calories at lunch" Careme (quoted by Alexandre Dumas)
posted by jfuller at 6:19 PM on March 1, 2005


I hope you have it right matteo!
posted by notreally at 6:54 PM on March 1, 2005


same here, I'm 6'3'
posted by matteo at 7:17 PM on March 1, 2005


I'm in the same boat. 6'2" 260lbs - I think there should be a 'bench press' factor in there somewhere....but it's pretty clear from my profile I enjoy the beer.

I'm wondering if Sumo know about this?


Nice post Matteo
posted by Smedleyman at 7:56 PM on March 1, 2005


I saw a show about Woody Hayes (1960s Ohio State coach) getting ready for one of his seasons. In one of his press conferences, he's asked: "Coach, your offensive line averages 240 lbs. Are you worried about them being too stiff and slow?"

Athletes in all sports (at least American sports) are a lot bigger now, due to weight lifting. I think the BMI is lacking when it does not take into account a person's body composition (i.e. muscle). By those standards, athletes like Karl Malone or Barry Bonds are obese, when in fact they probably carry a smaller % of fat than the average man.

In terms of length of life, I read a study recently that said fatties who are in shape live longer than skinny people who are out of shape. So it seems my exercise program of playing basketball then stopping by McD's for a McFlurry will pay off in the long run.
posted by b_thinky at 10:56 PM on March 1, 2005


You know, when we talk about longevity in football, it seems to me the players with the longest careers are actually the offensive linemen. There are probably dozens of players over 35 at that position in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the average NFL career is only 3 years long.

For offensive and defensive lineman, they really only need 10 yards of acceleration on every play. I guess an extra 50 lbs won't really slow you down over such short distances.

Very rarely do you see a RB or receiver last much past 30. It's truly amazing what Jerry Rice is accomplishing, just staying on the field at 42. I hope he plays until 50.
posted by b_thinky at 11:02 PM on March 1, 2005


I wonder how much of this is tied to the general increase in BMI in the population?
http://www.halls.md/bmi/nhanes.htm
Doesn't it stand to reason that if people are larger on average, we'll choose the largest among us to play football?
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:12 PM on March 1, 2005


BMI is basically as useful for the general population as those old height/weight charts. For someone who probably spends more time working out than sleeping it's completely useless. My wife, a kinesiologist and certified athletic trainer, can rant on the uselessness of BMI for hours.
posted by Mitheral at 8:01 AM on March 2, 2005


she sounds like she'd be perfect for MetaFilter
posted by matteo at 8:40 AM on March 2, 2005


I have not read the paper, but from the AP article:

"Almost all the players qualified as overweight..."

Com'on, do we need more justification than this to say the work is crap.


Especialy when the National Institues of Health say
The limits are:
- It may overestimate body fat in athletes and others who have a muscular build.
- It may underestimate body fat in older persons and others who have lost muscle mass.
- Appropriate weight gain during pregnancy varies and depends upon initial body weight or BMI level. Pregnant women should contact a health professional to assure appropriate weight gain during pregnancy.
Not to say that there are no obese players in the NFL, but the further their musculature is different from the norm, the less reliable BMI is as an indicator.

In my own case, I started the year "Obese" at 6'-2" and 236 lb. (BMI 30.3). I am now 199 lb. and if I lose 5 more pounds I'll be at a BMI of 24.9, just into the "Normal" range. Health-wise, I feel much better than I have in years, my blood pressure is down about 10 points on each number, and my waist is down from 40 inches to 35, decreasing my risk on another NIH health index.

Obesity is underrated when you're suffering from it- you think you're just getting old or whatever, and adjust for your declining health. But losing 35+ pounds in two months, I can tell you that dropping the extra weight makes you feel A LOT better, and I'm sure my life expectancy is benefitting.
posted by Doohickie at 9:56 AM on March 2, 2005


but the further their musculature is different from the norm, the less reliable BMI is as an indicator.

yes, but the problem is, players aren't getting bigger and heavier by chance, it's clearly part of the teams' programs -- almost 400 pounds? wtf? they're not eight feet tall, you see: is it healthy to train players to get them to be that huge?
and also, do the team's results get better if the coaches manage to get their players to put on more and more weight? roids, anyone?

wouldn't it be easier to draft a rhino instead of a human and teach it how to block, then?

as a non-USian I am always baffled at how much bigger NFL players get each year. and, frankly, at how big most MLB player's potbellies are.
posted by matteo at 11:02 AM on March 2, 2005


Matteo, with all due respect to the article, I don't see that many 400lb players around. I played at a major football NCAA school in the late 90s and the heaviest player we had was probably about 340 lbs, and he was about 6'6". The guy wasn't good enough to warrant any playing tiime until he lost about 20 lbs.

I can only think of one 400lb + NFL player in the past few years - Gilbert Brown, a former defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers. He was decent, but his weight was a constant issue that forced him into ineffectiveness/injury/early retirement.

Most NFL coaches want their lineman to weigh 300-320 lbs, and anything over that is considered overweight. They actually fine players for each day they spend over their weight limit. So I think the issue is whether or not 320 lbs is fat, not 400 lbs.

Interestingly enough, the team with the best offensive linemen is the Denver Broncos, who also have the smallest offensive line in the league. Over the past decade, their running game has been the best in the league, thanks to their offensive line. If you play fantasy football, just draft whatever no-name the Broncos have at RB - and he's almost certain to gain 1000 yards.
posted by b_thinky at 12:42 PM on March 2, 2005


In terms of length of life, I read a study recently that said fatties who are in shape live longer than skinny people who are out of shape.

I'd love to see a link. Everything I've read seems to indicate the opposite. (more) Obviously "in shape" vs. "out of shape" is also a major factor, but calories seem to be (so far) empirically tied to longevity.

Interestingly enough, the team with the best offensive linemen is the Denver Broncos, who also have the smallest offensive line in the league.

They're also the dirtiest, IMO. The difference between a cut block and a chop block is a fraction of a second. How many linebackers have they seriously injured? /offtopic
posted by mrgrimm at 1:22 PM on March 2, 2005


fixedgear, some Google fodder for you. That poll was referenced in an article, perhaps in Men's Health, in which the author, voluntarily and under a doctor's supervision, went on an short term drug program. Steroids, epo, HGH, etc. He was also interviewed on NPR. He was an enthusiastic amateur cyclist, as I recall.
posted by NortonDC at 4:53 PM on March 2, 2005


A couple of years ago Bryant Gumbel covered the topic of overweight current and former NFL players for HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The only mention of it I can find on the web right now is here.

He focuses on incidence of heart disease, rather than body mass index, and his story had at its heart a former player who died while waiting for a heart transplant, during production of that segment.

At the time the NFL had exactly one regular player who weighed over four hundred pounds, a journeyman defensive lineman (whose name I forget) then a Dallas Cowboy but spent the next season in Chicago.

People looking for anecdotal evidence that NFL football can be very bad for a player's long-term health need look no further than former Steeler Mike Webster.
posted by littleamerica at 5:09 PM on March 2, 2005


The people in here saying "I'm not fat because I'm strong," are engaged in some fantastic denial.

"After several years of training hard, a man may be able to gain 10 pounds of muscle, max."
(if blocked, the indelicate login combo of "fuckyou1234@fuckyou.com" and "password" works)

So that's 10 pounds you can use to monkey with the numbers, tops.

Aside from the standard fat ailments that typical people are already conscious of, like heart disease, the excess fat itself increases your risk of other deadly diseases including cancer. No matter how much you can bench press.

Quit kidding yourselves, and treat your body well. I'm sure there are plenty people that like the idea of having you around for a long time.
posted by NortonDC at 5:11 PM on March 2, 2005


mrgrimm: I think I read it in Newsweek a while ago. The article made the point that being thin isn't necessarily as important as being in shape. I don't have a link. Who knows if it's true or not.

The link posted by NortonDC proves that there are millions of different theories as to what muscle and fat do to your body. The only thing we know for sure is that we just don't know. But all things being equal, it's probably best to be skinny and in shape.
posted by b_thinky at 5:32 PM on March 2, 2005


At that point, Harp said, "it's definitely not all muscle. There's no way that's not obese."...

Let's see, I've always been considered slender, so I'll take a look at my own physique and then compare to Bob Sapp (former football player, current mixed-martial arts competitor). In the linked picture, Sapp is 6'5", 355 lbs. I think I can safely say from the photographic evidence that his body fat percentage is significantly less than mine. Definitely not obese. (For the record, Sapp claims his body fat fluctuates from 11%-13%, which seems about right from the photos I've seen.)


I can certainly believe that many NFL players will have eventual health problems. Many use steroids, which can have nasty long-term effects. The demands of their sport makes joint injuries likely. When they retire, they may stop exercising, due to injuries or lack of professional motivation. If they stop exercising, but keep eating the way they're used to, they will get fat. Using the BMI to call them all obese seems pretty unrealistic, though.

I'm not real impressed with Dr. Harp's "study", which consisted of just pulling player heights/weights off the NFL website and plugging them into the BMI without gathering any additional relevant information. Dr. Roberts has more credibility, but I notice the links concerning his work merely say that he's trying to identify risk factors, not that he's calling most NFL players obese.
posted by tdismukes at 12:27 PM on March 3, 2005


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