TCS Daily

The National Fatty League?

By Duane D. Freese - March 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Who's to blame for the Supersizing of National Football League players? The trainers? The coaches? The owners? The networks? Fast food, beer and auto advertisers?

Someone certainly has to be held responsible for the epidemic of girth among pro football players uncovered by nutritionists from the University of North Carolina and disclosed in a research letter in the March 2nd Journal of the American Medical Association.

Just look at the findings: 56% of pro football players have Body Mass Indexes (calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared) above 30, the cutoff point of World Health Organization standards for obesity. That's more than twice the 23% average among U.S. males 20 to 39, according to the letter. In addition, 26% of players, almost all of them on the offensive and defensive lines, qualify as severely obese with BMIs above 35.

These results have come as a great surprise to the media. "Study Finds Obesity Rampant in NFL," declared headlines in USA Today and the Detroit News.

Why one almost expects Super Size Me movie maker Morgan Spurlock to take on the NFL lineman's diet of 6,000 to 10,000 calories a day -- more than double the fast food calories he said he ate a day to gain 24.5 pounds in a month or about 10 to 17 of those "two-all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun." He could call it Super Size Me Times Two.

Of course, some have already dismissed the findings in the letter about as scientific as a Michael Moore film. The National Football League for one. It notes that many of these "obese" people are simply heavily muscled, and as muscle weighs more than fat they are certainly no more obese than average Americans.

They have a point. The BMI was first developed by 19th Century Belgian social statistician Adolphe Quetelet, who was trying to determine, what constituted the average man." And football players are no more average on a BMI weight scale than basketball players are on a scale for height. The Centers for Disease Control likewise has weighed in, noting the BMI is not a diagnostic tool for individual health.

Besides, football players have always been bigger than average. A 1994 National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study of players from 1959 to 1988 -- before the U.S. adopted the WHO's BMI scales for overweight and obesity and including more than a thousand players from the 1950s and 1960s before weight training pushed up BMIs -- found 64% in their last year had BMIs above 28 (then considered obese by NIOSH, and a substantially higher percentage than for their cohorts) and 23% had BMIs above 32.

The UNC authors argue in their letter that the high weights can't be good for the players. And they have a case. Recent studies show some players with the highest BMIs suffer sleep apnea and high blood pressure. And the NIOSH study found that, while mortality rates for football players were overall 46% lower than for males with similar demographics, the former lineman in their study suffered 3.7 times more cardiovascular disease than players at other positions and 50% more such disease than in the general population.

So bulking up is bad, though the higher weights can't be unexpected, the UNC nutritionist say, because of "the pressures of professional athletes to increase their mass."

What pressures? Well that's where the blame game can begin.

A sports editor for the California State University Orion Online suggests that "the league should take more steps to promote a healthier image of its players. " And a sports columnist for Scripps-Howard calls on the league to set a weight limit for its players -- 325 pounds tops.

All that's missing now is consumer advocates demanding that football be banned from TV as setting a bad example for kids and trial lawyers bringing some overweight high school players into court to sue the league, TV and the sponsors for inducing them to put on weight in hopes of getting a career in the NFL.

After all, if owners didn't pay those big multi-millionaire contracts to the behemoths like Shaun Rogers and Leonard Davis, if television didn't hype football and sponsors didn't advertise their products on games, all of these players would be slender and healthy, like they were in the 1940s before football became a national passion. Retired players from that era have average a mere 28.15 BMI compared with the 31.5 for those who retired in the 1990s.

That's all plausible, of course, as long as you're not an economist. They would bet against big football players getting any healthier if they weren't getting a paycheck to exercise.

It's a matter of examining the costs and benefits.

For all their moralizing about greedy businesses, their critics aren't averse to tipping the cost-benefit scales in their own favor when they can.

Thus, consumer advocates stand up for high contingency fees for trial lawyers, as an inducement to take on those speculative cases they want brought against corporations, like those against cigarette makers, asbestos producers and, now, the fast food industry. Go get 'em and get rich.

And docu-entertainers such as Moore and Spurlock are hardly averse to turning a dime for themselves when they can. Spurlock has turned his big Super Size Me payoff into reality TV series, 30 Days, for example. One episode in the planning sure to grab viewers seeks to have a single mom with a high school senior for a daughter drink as much as a female college freshman in a month while taking care of her job and other responsibilities. Her reward: $10,000 for the 30-day trial.

Fast food restaurants were awful to lower prices and increase portion sizes, according to Spurlock in Super Size Me. But his paying a mother to go on a drinking binge? That's entertainment. That's ratings. But maybe fast food restaurants should learn from him. Maybe they can get their customers to sign the same kind of waiver of liability for buying a burger that Spurlock will get from the mother for that drinking spree.

The economic point, though, is that everyone weighs costs and benefits. And while some see the multi-millionaire deals for behemoth lineman to induce them into unhealthily increasing their weight, the other side of it is that it also induces them to lift weights and otherwise exercise or they wouldn't be able to play the game.

Athletes generally face health problems not while they are playing but after they retire. The cardiovascular diseases were discovered by NIOSH among players after they'd retired, and the big boys stopped exercising and didn't take off the weight. The basic problem for these retired athletes is the same one that most people in modern societies now face. They are no longer paid to exercise. As economist Tomas Philipson noted at an American Enterprise Institute forum on the real sources of obesity, technology has done the same thing for the rest of society retirement does to athletes -- it requires they no longer be paid to exercise, i.e., perform manual labor.

Technology has also lowered relative food prices, helping to explain why obesity rates are rising around the world. They're climbing in Brazil and Ghana as well as in the USA and Europe. Weights have increased in places with strict restrictions on food advertising and in places without fast food restaurants. And it's gone on even in places that watch something we call soccer, rather than rock 'em, sock 'em American-style football.

So, if you're looking for someone to blame for football players' obesity, or your child's, or your own -- stop it, please. Pay your dues. Go take a walk, then pop in your car and grab a burger and a brew, and watch some other Super Size guys in the NCAA tournament. After all, according to the BMI, Michael Jordan with a BMI of 25 was a little fatty and Shaquille O'Neal, despite having only 13% body fat, is a big one at BMI 31.6.


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