CHICAGO -- It's no secret that size matters in the National
Football League, but a new study suggests that a whopping 56
percent of NFL players would be considered obese by some medical
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.
In the study, University of North Carolina endocrinologist Joyce
Harp and student Lindsay Hecht used statistics on the NFL Web site
to calculate BMIs for 2,168 NFL players, nearly all those playing
in the 2003-04 season.
Almost all the players qualified as overweight, and 56 percent
had BMIs of at least 30 -- what doctors consider obese. For example,
a 6-foot-2 man weighing 235 has a BMI of just over 30. Nearly half
of the obese players were in the severely obese range, with a BMI
of at least 35, and a small percentage were morbidly obese with a
BMI of at least 40.
Harp acknowledged that without measuring body composition, it's
uncertain how many players were truly fat, but she said it's
unlikely the high BMIs were "due to a healthy increase in muscle
"The high number of large players was not unexpected, given the
pressures of professional athletes to increase their mass. However,
it may not be without health consequences," the researchers wrote,
citing previous studies that documented obesity-related problems,
including sleep apnea and high blood pressure in NFL players.
The study appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical
While the study methods were not very scientific, players'
growing girth "is a major concern," said Dr. Arthur Roberts, a
former NFL quarterback and retired heart surgeon whose Living Heart
Foundation works with the players union to evaluate heart-related
health risks faced by current and retired players.
"These larger body sizes are generally associated with greater
cardiovascular risks," Roberts said.
The increasing emphasis on size may be a bad influence on "all
the young kids that play football around the country ... and are
trying to be like their heroes," Roberts said.
Players union spokesman Carl Francis said health and safety are
"discussed all the time," and that while some players likely are
obese, it's not a major problem.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello called the study substandard and said
there's no proof obesity is worse in the NFL than in U.S. society
in general, where about 30 percent of adults are obese, based on
BMI data. "This was not a serious medical study," he said.
Dr. Brian Cole of Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, an
orthopedic surgeon who works with the Arena Football League, also
questioned the study methods and said some teams list inaccurately
high weights to appear more intimidating.
"While clearly there are pressures for increased size" in
professional football, relying on published height and weight data
but not physical exams is faulty, he said.
Julie Burns, a nutritionist who works with the Chicago Bears,
said combining BMI data with players' waist measurements is a
better fat indicator because some highly conditioned athletes with
a high BMI also have a large amount of lean tissue.
Jurkovic said he weighed 272 in the mid 1990s -- hefty by any
standards on his 6-foot-2 frame -- but was pressured by a coach to
get even bigger and ballooned up to 328. On the BMI scale, that's
morbidly obese. Jurkovic said he had already maxed out on
weightlifting so he packed on mostly fat by gorging.
Combined with the physical toll of football, excess weight wears
down joints and causes problems as players age and then retire,
Jurkovic said. At 37, he now weighs a "chunky" 295 and has ankle
problems he blames on football and excess weight.
"It's tough for the league to police, but I think they should
try to police it," he said.