People are supposed to die when they're old, not when they're still in their prime. Yet in 2011 so many of these athletes seem to have been snuffed out prematurely. Or were they?
Was I unduly influenced by reading the obituaries of five famous athletes who died in their 40s, four in their 30s, and four in their 20s? When they were born, they had life expectancies of just over 70 years. Today, life expectancy for newborns is 78. They shouldn't die so young.
So, in the spirit of one who has too much time on his hands, I set to work to test a hypothesis based on my reaction to the Sports Illustrated article: Athletes die younger than non-athletes.
This, of course, is a heretical notion. We all know that exercise and sports are good for soul and body. Well, testing benefits to the soul is a more difficult experiment than I can devise. But perhaps I can discern, through an elementary data analysis, whether famous athletes' bodies are at greater risk than those of us more sedentary types.
So I went through the Sports Illustrated list of farewells and eliminated the several non-athletes -- agents, writers and such. I did include coaches, because most coaches were active athletes in their previous lives. I was left with 60 famous athletes who died in 2011. And their ages. Their average age was calculated to be 62.5 years (median age: 65.0).
As I suspected, they were young. But how young? Well, for starters, much younger than life expectancy is now, and even much younger than their life expectancy was when they were born. But how much younger than, say, a similar-size cohort of other people? Say, famous non-athletes.
For this calculation, I went today to the online Times, which, had a list of just over 60 news obituaries -- those of people famous enough for the Times to have written an article about them when they died. The sample I used started with deaths on Dec. 13, 2011, and continued through this afternoon. After culling out several athletes on the list, I was left, coincidentally, with 60 people -- or, rather, former people.
The result? An average age at death for famous non-athletes of 81.3 years (median age: 82.0).
Not satisfied with just this one list, I found another compilation in the Times of famous people who died during the entire year 2011. After weeding out the athletes, I was left with 125 obituaries. The results: an identical average age of 81.3 years (median age: 84).
This is about 17 to 19 years longer than the athletes' age of death, depending on whether one uses average or median as the measure. Let's call it 18.
Famous non-athletes live almost two decades longer than famous athletes.
Almost two decades! That's mind-boggling. A small difference would be explainable as within the margin of error. But two decades? There must be some statistical significance.
The comparison is even more startling when comparing deaths by decades of their lives, as shown in the chart. In the four decades of their lives, from their 20s through their 50s, a total of 27 athletes died, compared with only two non-athletes. Or at the other end of the mortality spectrum, only two athletes survived until their 90s, compared with 17 non-athletes.
I titled this piece facetiously, or so I thought at the start. But maybe it isn't facetious. Perhaps sports at its highest level does come at a price. We now know the impact that contact sports have on hips, knees, shoulders, the back, and other parts of the body, and we also have recently been made aware of the surprisingly high rate of concussions in football and hockey. It's conceivable that there are yet further insults to the system that are the cost of becoming a world-class athlete. Years and years of extended practice and high-level competition may do damage to the body that diminish the famous athlete's lifespan.
In any event, my fingers are getting pretty exhausted from all this typing, so I've decided to stop now before I press my longevity luck.
60 Famous-Athlete Deaths 2011 (Sports Illustrated, Dec. 26, 2011)
|Greg Halman, 24, baseball|
|Rick Rypien, 27, hockey|
|Derek Boogaard, 28, hockey|
|Jeret Peterson, 29, skiing|
|Dan Wheldon, 33, racecar driver|
|Robert Traylor, 34, basketball|
|Wade Belak, 35, hockey|
|Margo Dydek, 37, basketball|
|Orlando Brown, 40, football|
|Chester McGlockton, 42, football|
|Hideki Irabu, 42, baseball|
|Lorenzo Charles, 47, basketball|
|Armen Gilliam, 47, basketball|
|Dave Duerson, 50, football|
|Kent Hull, 50, football|
|Ron Springs, 54, football|
|Seve Ballesteros, 54, golf|
|Drew Hill, 54, football|
|Charlie Lea, 54, baseball|
|Mike Mitchell, 55, basketball|
|Lee Roy Selmon, 56, football|
|Socrates, 57, soccer|
|Grete Waitz, 57, marathon|
|Randy Savage, 58, baseball|
|Nikolai Andrianov, 58, gymnastics|
|Mike Flanagan, 59, baseball|
|Rick Martin, 59, hockey|
|Larry Finch, 60, basketball|
|Bob Forsch, 61, baseball|
|Paul Splittorff, 64, baseball|
|Bubba Smith, 66, football|
|Joe Frazier, 67, boxing|
|Gale Gillingham, 67, football|
|John Mackey, 69, football|
|Walt Hazzard, 69, basketball|
|Vasili Alexeyev, 69, weightlifting|
|Peter Gent, 69, football|
|Woodie Fryman, 70, baseball|
|Jim Northrup, 71, baseball|
|Matty Alou, 72, baseball|
|Dave Gavitt, 73, basketball|
|Harmon Killebrew, 74, baseball|
|Dave Hill, 74, golf|
|Cookie Gilchrist, 75, football|
|Don Chandler, 76, football|
|Wes Covington, 79, baseball|
|Ollie Matson, 80, football|
|Ryne Duren, 81, baseball|
|John Henry Johnson, 81, football|
|Al Davis, 82, football|
|Dick Williams, 82, baseball|
|Chuck Tanner, 82, baseball|
|Ed Macauley, 83, basketball|
|Duke Snider, 84, baseball|
|Joe Perry, 84, football|
|Andy Robustelli, 85, football|
|Joe Steffy, 85, football|
|Pete Pihos, 87, football|
|Marty Marion, 93, baseball|
|Jack LaLanne, 96, bodybuilder|
60 Famous-Non-Athlete Deaths (Dec. 13, 2011 to mid-afternoon, Jan. 2, 2012 from the New York times online, 1/2/12)