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Mortality of NBA Players: Risk Factors and Comparison with the General US Population

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Concerns have been raised recently by players’ associations regarding the risk of death among retired players. Using a retrospective cohort study, we analyzed factors associated with the mortality of National Basketball Association (NBA) players and compared their life expectancy with that of the general population. We analyzed a cohort of 3985 players who participated in the NBA from its inception in 1946 to April 2015 (481 active and 3504 former players). We used the data for the 3504 former NBA players, of whom 687 (19.1%) died before 15 April 2015, to study the elapsed time between the end of their NBA careers until death. Cox proportional hazards models were employed in the multivariate survival analysis. After adjusting for age at the end of the NBA career and calendar year, we found that mortality is associated with height and ethnicity. Taller players and African-American players had a higher instantaneous risk of death than shorter players or white players. In addition, the life expectancy of players (regardless of height and ethnicity) has increased since the inception of the NBA. This is the first study using such an extensive cohort of professional basketball players and Cox proportional hazards models. Results confirmed that height is associated with mortality. In addition, ethnicity is also linked to mortality; white players and small players live longer. Our study is useful for devising strategies for health interventions and the proper allocation of resources with respect to the general population.
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applied
sciences
Article
Mortality of NBA Players: Risk Factors and
Comparison with the General US Population
Jose A. Martínez 1, Klaus Langohr 2, Julián Felipo 3and MartíCasals 4, 5, *
1Department of Business Economics, Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena, 30201 Cartagena, Spain;
josean.martinez@upct.es
2Department of Statistics and Operations Research, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya/Barcelonatech,
08034 Barcelona, Spain; klaus.langohr@upc.edu
3Newsroom, Basketball Departament, Mundo Deportivo, 08036 Barcelona, Spain; jfelipo@gmail.com
4Sport and Physical Activity Studies Centre (CEEAF), University of Vic—Central University of
Catalonia (UVic-UCC), 08500 Catalonia, Spain
5Medical Department, Futbol Club Barcelona, Barça Innovation Hub, 08028 Barcelona, Spain
*Correspondence: marti.casals1@umedicina.cat
Received: 7 January 2019; Accepted: 29 January 2019; Published: 1 February 2019


Featured Application: This is one of the first studies using such an extensive cohort of
professional basketball players and Cox proportional hazards models, which takes into account
left-truncation, i.e., late entry at the age of the players’ NBA debuts. Results suggested that height
and ethnicity are associated to mortality: White players and small players live longer. Our study
is useful for devising strategies for health interventions and the proper allocation of resources
with respect to the general population.
Abstract:
Concerns have been raised recently by players’ associations regarding the risk of death
among retired players. Using a retrospective cohort study, we analyzed factors associated with the
mortality of National Basketball Association (NBA) players and compared their life expectancy with
that of the general population. We analyzed a cohort of 3985 players who participated in the NBA
from its inception in 1946 to April 2015 (481 active and 3504 former players). We used the data for
the 3504 former NBA players, of whom 687 (19.1%) died before 15 April 2015, to study the elapsed
time between the end of their NBA careers until death. Cox proportional hazards models were
employed in the multivariate survival analysis. After adjusting for age at the end of the NBA career
and calendar year, we found that mortality is associated with height and ethnicity. Taller players and
African-American players had a higher instantaneous risk of death than shorter players or white
players. In addition, the life expectancy of players (regardless of height and ethnicity) has increased
since the inception of the NBA. This is the first study using such an extensive cohort of professional
basketball players and Cox proportional hazards models. Results confirmed that height is associated
with mortality. In addition, ethnicity is also linked to mortality; white players and small players live
longer. Our study is useful for devising strategies for health interventions and the proper allocation
of resources with respect to the general population.
Keywords: prevention; survival analysis; basketball; mortality; NBA; sports medicine
1. Introduction
Active participation in sports is generally considered to be beneficial for health and well-being.
Protecting the health of athletes is one of the priorities of the International Olympic Committee.
The relationship between health and participation in sports has been studied from different
perspectives with regard to mortality. Some recent studies have highlighted fatalities among players in
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500; doi:10.3390/app9030500 www.mdpi.com/journal/applsci
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 2 of 13
professional leagues [
1
,
2
], and other studies have focused on the longevity and life expectancy (LE) of
elite athletes [36].
Shortly after the 50th anniversary of the NBA, in 1996, a study was carried out to analyze
mortality among NBA players [
7
] between 1946 and 1994, covering 2810 players, of whom 175 had
died. Professional basketball players have had favorable mortality rates, despite adverse publicity
following the (early) death of a very small number of players [
7
]. African-American players were
shown to live nine years longer than their reference population group, and longer than white men
in the general public [
8
]. Additionally, white NBA players live longer than the white US population,
and longer than African-American players.
However, the literature also shows that basketball players may be at special risk of some fatal
diseases. The incidence of sports-related sudden cardiac death (SCD) in the United States is highest
among basketball players, and the most common cause of SCD in this population is hypertrophic
cardiomyopathy [
9
]. In addition, research on the relationship between mortality and height has shown
that height is positively associated with increased risk of cancer [
10
12
] and lower LE [
6
,
13
]. Moreover,
height is positively associated with risk of venous thromboembolism [
14
], and professional basketball
players have a higher risk of pulmonary embolism [15].
In recent years, there has been media concern about the early mortality of former NBA
players [2,16,17]
, with numerous deaths in 2015 of well-known ex-professional basketball players
before the age of 60 years. For instance, Moses Malone (aged 60 years), Darryl Dawkins (58), Jerome
Kersey (52), Jack Haley (51), Christian Welp (50), and Anthony Mason (48) died between February and
September of 2015. All of these players shared three similar features: They were >2 m tall, had had
a long NBA career, and had died from a heart/circulatory system-related event.
Some former players made public comments about this issue [
16
], such as Larry Bird (2.06 m;
“I tell my wife all the time: You don’t see many 7-footers (2.13 m) walking around at the age of 75”) and
Bill Walton (2.11 m; “We athletes are our own worst enemies. We don’t listen to our bodies, we don’t
listen to our doctors. We don’t realize until later in life that health is everything”).
These fatal events, along with societal concern, have provoked a reaction from the NBA and the
scientific community. In 2016, the NBA and the NBA players’ union embarked on a joint effort to
provide health screening for retired players [
16
]. In addition, an initiative was started to analyze cardiac
structure and function among 526 NBA players on active rosters for the 2013–2014 and 2014–2015
seasons, in order to provide a detailed understanding of normal and expected cardiac remodeling,
i.e., structural and functional myocardial adaptation in response to sustained exercise [9].
There is much conflicting literature evidence on the mortality of basketball players, not only for
heart-related conditions but for all diseases. Evidence on mortality and lifespan shows that the LE of
team athletes practicing aerobic–anaerobic sports (such as basketball) is generally higher than in the
general population [
3
,
6
,
18
]. Indeed, elite athletes have a higher LE than the general population [
19
,
20
],
and male elite athletes have been shown to survive 2–3 years longer than their male siblings [
21
].
Nevertheless, physical activity patterns including one or two sessions per week may be sufficient to
reduce all-cause mortality, including cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer, regardless of adherence
to prevailing physical activity guidelines [
22
]. Further, light to moderate amounts of exercise results in
lower risk of CVD and early mortality than very extreme or very intense exercise [23,24].
Consequently, the aim of this research was two-fold: (1) To analyze the factors associated with
mortality among former NBA players; and (2) to compare the LE of NBA players to that in the general
population. To achieve these objectives, we analyzed data from 3985 players who participated in the
NBA from its inception in 1946 to April 2015.
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 3 of 13
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Design, Subjects, and Variables
We performed a retrospective cohort study based on the records of all 3985 active and former
NBA players. The cohort included all professional basketball athletes who had played in the NBA
from its inception in 1946 to April 2015 (when we began the study). Players who only participated
in the ABA league were excluded (299 cases), but players who participated in both NBA and ABA
leagues were included. The ABA league was an alternative professional league from 1967 to 1976.
Players were identified from www.basketball-reference.com, which is one of the most
comprehensive databases of basketball player information. Players were automatically linked to
their height, playing position, place of birth, games, and minutes played in their NBA career, together
with the date of their debut and last season played. Playing position was divided into the following
categories: Center (C), Center–Forward (C–F), Forward–Center (C-F), Forward (F), Forward–Guard
(F–G), Guard–Forward (G–F), and Guard (G). These positions represent a proxy regarding the physical
and technical features of players. Regarding place of birth, we differentiated between US and non-US
players. The remaining variables of interest were manually recorded player by player. Data on
handedness, weight, ethnicity, date of birth, and date of death were added to the database by two of
the authors and three independent coders, who received prior training for that purpose. The number
of deceased players before April 15, 2015 was 734.
2.2. Validation of Variables: Height and Ethnicity
We implemented a sequence of manual data entry using a validation process. In the first stage,
researchers entered data on weight, date of birth, and date of death in a sample of 1620 cases.
Two trained coders (Coder 1 and Coder 2) then recorded the remaining cases (1178 and 1187,
respectively), after which a third coder (Coder 3) validated the codification. The number of mismatches
(disagreements) identified for these three variables was 72, 72, and 49, respectively. We reviewed and
resolved all mismatches. Ethnicity was recorded by two independent coders and classified in three
categories: African-American, White/Asian, and Mixed. Coders were trained to identify players who
were born from parents with different ethnicity, such as Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, Blake Griffin or
Aaron Gordon. Once this process was finished, all researchers reviewed the codification and discussed
dubious cases. The final categorization was reached by consensus. Coding of handedness was also
done manually by two of the authors without any recorded mismatches.
Registration of height required particular attention because differences were found from one
source to another. While we initially collected the data from www.basketball-reference.com in
April 2015, the height of 43 players had changed when the data were checked again in June 2017.
To fix this divergence, we consulted www.NBA.com, where the heights recorded were similar to those
obtained in June 2017 from www.basketball-reference.com (39 of 43 coincidences). We decided to
use heights from NBA.com for all of these 43 players. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA)
also reports the height of participating players; we identified 238 players from the FIBA website who
were also in our database and found that the heights reported for FIBA tournaments varied for almost
all cases. As there was no way to decide which of the sources was most reliable, we regressed FIBA
heights on NBA heights for the 238 players identified and observed a statistically significant constant
(7.040) and regression coefficient (0.964) (standard errors were bootstrapped), with an R-square of
0.953. Using these parameters, we estimated the heights of the remaining 3757 NBA players as a proxy
of their FIBA height. Consequently, we had two different versions of the height variable.
Finally, having completed the codification and validation process, we investigated the cause of
death of those 734 players using the Google search engine and specialist sources such as basketball
networks (APBR), digital newspapers (New York Times, LA Times), sports websites (ESPN), and other
media resources. Only 443 of the 734 deaths (60.35%) could be clearly assigned to a cause. We codified
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 4 of 13
every cause of death using the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health
Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10)-WHO Version for 2016.
2.3. Statistical Analysis
For the descriptive analysis, we computed the means of absolute and relative frequencies for
categorical variables of interest, and measures of central tendency and statistical dispersion for
numeric variables.
To analyze survival times among NBA players, we studied two different response variables. First,
survival time was defined as the time elapsed from the end of the NBA career until death. Players
who were active on 15 April 2015 were excluded from this analysis, and the survival times of former
players alive on 15 April 2015 were treated as right-censored. We estimated survival probabilities and
median survival time using the Kaplan–Meier method [
25
]. We conducted multivariate analysis using
the Cox proportional hazards model [
26
], whose measure of effect size is the hazard ratio, i.e., the ratio
of instantaneous risk functions, which is assumed to be constant over time. The potential predictors
were the players’ physical characteristics and NBA career-related variables. In addition, the model
was adjusted for age and year of the players’ retirement from the NBA. For the second objective, age at
death was modeled as the response variable; this analysis included both active and former players.
The survival times of players who were alive on 15 April 2015 were treated as right-censored, and all
survival times were treated as left-truncated at the age of the corresponding NBA debut. As before,
survival probabilities were estimated using the Kaplan–Meier method and the multivariate analysis
was conducted using the Cox proportional hazards model. The potential model predictors were the
players’ characteristics. In addition, the model was adjusted for the year of the players’ first NBA
season. Studying age at death permits us to estimate LE as the model-based estimate of the median.
For both models, only African-American and white players were considered, and the proportional
hazard assumptions of both models were checked using the Schoenfeld residuals [27].
Moreover, to compare the mortality of African-American and white NBA players with that of
the general African-American and white US populations, respectively, we computed standardized
mortality ratios (SMRs) for the years 2000 through 2014. This measure is the ratio of the observed to
the expected number of deaths in the study population, where the yearly expected number of deaths
was calculated based on the players’ ages on January 1, and the survival probabilities of the same year
in the corresponding population.
All analyses were conducted using version 3.4.4 of the R statistical software (Vienna, Austria;
http://www.rproject.org/). Specifically, we used the R packages survival [
28
] and epitools [
29
] to
analyze the survival times and to compute the SMRs, respectively. The R code of the analyses carried
out and the data are available as Supplemental Material. This work fulfils the transparency and
reproducibility of scientific research.
2.4. Ethical Considerations
We did not seek ethical approval for this study, as all information used and reported is freely
available via online sources.
3. Results
3.1. Descriptive Analysis
Table 1presents characteristics of the players included in this study according to their status
(active versus former NBA players), and the proportions all former players who died before
15 April 2015. The mean height and weight of players during this period were 198 cm (SD: 9.32)
and 94.8 kg (SD: 12), respectively. A total of 1535 players (38.7%) were White, 2324 (58.7%) were
African-American, and 103 (2.6%) were mixed. Regarding player position, 11% were centers,
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 5 of 13
4.53% center–forwards, 28.7% forwards, 8.3% forward–centers, 4.94% forward–guards,34.3% guards,
and 8.11% guard–forwards.
Table 1. Descriptive analysis of variables for active and former players, and players who died.
Total 1Active 1Former 1Players Who Died 2
N = 3985 N = 481 N = 3504 N = 687
Position
Center 431 (11.0%) 53 (11.3%) 378 (11.0%) 70 (18.52%)
Center–Forward 177 (4.53%) 11 (2.35%) 166 (4.83%) 51 (30.72%)
Forward 1122 (28.7%) 146 (31.1%) 976 (28.4%) 163 (16.7%)
Forward–Center 326 (8.34%) 32 (6.82%) 294 (8.55%) 84 (28.57%)
Forward–Guard 193 (4.94%) 20 (4.26%) 173 (5.03%) 50 (28.9%)
Guard 1342 (34.3%) 163 (34.8%) 1179 (34.3%) 178 (15.1%)
Guard–Forward 317 (8.11%) 44 (9.38%) 273 (7.94%) 77 (28.21%)
Ethnicity
White 1535 (38.7%) 112 (23.3%) 1423 (40.9%) 517 (36.33%)
Mixed 103 (2.60%) 47 (9.79%) 56 (1.61%) 1 (1.79%)
African-American 2324 (58.7%) 321 (66.9%) 2003 (57.5%) 165 (8.24%)
Place
Non-USA 360 (9.03%) 100 (20.8%) 260 (7.42%) 12 (4.62%)
USA 3625 (91.0%) 381 (79.2%) 3244 (92.6%) 675 (20.81%)
Left handed
No 3753 (94.2%) 439 (91.3%) 3314 (94.6%) 661 (19.95%)
Yes 232 (5.82%) 42 (8.73%) 190 (5.42%) 26 (3.78%)
Age—years-at debut (mean; SD) 23.4 (2.11) 22.0 (1.93) 23.6 (2.06) 24.2 (2.34)
Age—years-at end of the last NBA
season (mean; SD) 28.2 (4.36) 27.4 (4.21) 328.3 (4.37) 27.8 (3.56)
Height—cm (mean; SD) 198 (9.32) 201 (8.75) 198 (9.34) 194 (8.81)
Weight—kg (mean; SD) 94.8 (12.0) 100 (12.1) 94.1 (11.8) 198 (22.1)
Number of NBA games (mean; SD) 277 (310) 342 (294) 3268 (311) 183 (230)
1
Percentages represent proportions of all, active, and former players, respectively;
2
Percentages represent the
number of players who died, as a proportion of all former players;
3
These measures are not comparable because
the active players are still playing.
3.2. Survival Analysis
We used the follow-up data for the 3504 former NBA players, of whom 687 (19.1%) died before
15 April 2015, to study the time elapsed from the end of their NBA career until death.
The unadjusted nonparametric estimation of the survival function (Figure 1) shows that the
estimated probability of survival to 67 years of age is about 0.15. The estimated median survival time
is 54.8 years (95% confidence interval, 95% CI = 53.7–55.9 years).
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 6 of 13
Appl. Sci. 2019, 9, x FOR PEER REVIEW 6 of 13
Figure 1. Estimated survival probabilities of former NBA players after their NBA career. The shaded
area represents the 95% confidence bands, and the horizontal line represents survival probability of
0.5.
Regarding age of death of NBA players, we analyzed data for all active and former players and
computed an unadjusted nonparametric estimation of the survival function (Figure 2). The estimated
median age at death was 81.3 years (95% CI = 80.2–82.5 years). The youngest NBA player to die was
Nick Vanos, who was killed at the age of 24 years in an airplane crash. The oldest former NBA player
was Ben Goldfadden, who died at the age of 99 years.
Figure 2. Estimated survival probabilities as a function of age of active and former NBA players. The
shaded area represents the 95% confidence bands, and the horizontal line represents survival
probability of 0.5.
Table 2 presents the proportional hazards models for both response variables of interest; these
models include all variables that were statistically significantly associated with the survival times of
Figure 1.
Estimated survival probabilities of former NBA players after their NBA career. The shaded
area represents the 95% confidence bands, and the horizontal line represents survival probability of 0.5.
Regarding age of death of NBA players, we analyzed data for all active and former players and
computed an unadjusted nonparametric estimation of the survival function (Figure 2). The estimated
median age at death was 81.3 years (95% CI = 80.2–82.5 years). The youngest NBA player to die was
Nick Vanos, who was killed at the age of 24 years in an airplane crash. The oldest former NBA player
was Ben Goldfadden, who died at the age of 99 years.
Appl. Sci. 2019, 9, x FOR PEER REVIEW 6 of 13
Figure 1. Estimated survival probabilities of former NBA players after their NBA career. The shaded
area represents the 95% confidence bands, and the horizontal line represents survival probability of
0.5.
Regarding age of death of NBA players, we analyzed data for all active and former players and
computed an unadjusted nonparametric estimation of the survival function (Figure 2). The estimated
median age at death was 81.3 years (95% CI = 80.2–82.5 years). The youngest NBA player to die was
Nick Vanos, who was killed at the age of 24 years in an airplane crash. The oldest former NBA player
was Ben Goldfadden, who died at the age of 99 years.
Figure 2. Estimated survival probabilities as a function of age of active and former NBA players. The
shaded area represents the 95% confidence bands, and the horizontal line represents survival
probability of 0.5.
Table 2 presents the proportional hazards models for both response variables of interest; these
models include all variables that were statistically significantly associated with the survival times of
Figure 2.
Estimated survival probabilities as a function of age of active and former NBA players.
The shaded area represents the 95% confidence bands, and the horizontal line represents survival
probability of 0.5.
Table 2presents the proportional hazards models for both response variables of interest;
these models include all variables that were statistically significantly associated with the survival
times of NBA players. According to both models, the height of NBA players is related to survival
time. The positive sign of the estimated parameters indicates that instantaneous risk increases with
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 7 of 13
increasing height. In addition, when comparing African-American players to white players, the
estimated adjusted hazard ratio is 1.4 for both models, indicating higher instantaneous risk among
African-American players. The increase in LE in recent decades is reflected in the negative sign of the
parameter estimate for the variables for year of players’ last (Model I) and first NBA seasons (Model II).
The positive sign of the parameter estimate of the age variable at end of their NBA career (Model I) is
expected because it reflects the fact that average survival time is longer the younger the player was
when he finishes his career. However, it does not imply that this variable is related to age at death.
Further NBA career-related variables, such as number of NBA games, which could have been included
in Model I, were not statistically significant.
Table 2.
Cox regression models to analyze factors associated with mortality among NBA players during
the period 1946–2015. The response variable in Model I is the time elapsed from the end of the NBA
career until death. The response variable in Model II is age at death.
Model I Variables Estimate SE HR (95% CI) p-Value
Height 0.02 0.005 1.02 (1.01–1.03) <0.001
Age at end of NBA career 0.09 0.011 1.10 (1.07–1.12) <0.001
Year of last NBA season 0.02 0.005 0.98 (0.97–0.99) <0.001
Ethnicity (African-Americans vs. White) 0.35 0.113 1.41 (1.13–1.76) <0.001
Model II Variables Estimate SE HR (95% CI) p-Value
Height 0.02 0.005 1.02 (1.01–1.03) <0.001
Year of first NBA season 0.02 0.005 0.98 (0.97–0.99) <0.001
Ethnicity (African-Americans vs. White) 0.31 0.109 1.37 (1.11–1.69) 0.002
SE: Standard error; HR: Hazard ratio.
The analysis of the Schoenfeld residuals by means of R’s cox.zph function revealed that
the proportional hazards assumption holds reasonably well. In the case of Model I, the p-value
corresponding to the null hypothesis of proportional hazards was 0.061, and in the case of the Model II,
it was 0.548. Model II models the age at death of NBA players and can be used to estimate the median
survival time based on the variables included in the model, which can be interpreted as the players’
LE. Table 3shows the estimations (95% CI) for African-American and white NBA players of 2 m tall for
different NBA debut years. It can be observed that the estimated LE of NBA players increased steadily
throughout the last decades and that in 2010, it was 89 years for white NBA players and 85.8 years for
African-American players.
Table 3.
Estimated median ages (and 95% confidence intervals) at death among NBA players of 2 m in
height as a function of ethnicity and year of first NBA season.
Ethnicity Height (cm) Year Median Age (Life Expectancy) CI 95% LI CI 95% LS
White 200 1950 79.6 78.6 81.0
African-American
200 1950 76.6 74.2 79.2
White 200 1960 81.0 79.7 82.6
African-American
200 1960 78.5 76.5 80.0
White 200 1970 82.8 80.6 85.1
African-American
200 1970 79.6 78.4 81.5
White 200 1980 84.3 81.7 87.8
African-American
200 1980 81.0 79.2 84.0
White 200 1990 85.9 82.6 91.2
African-American
200 1990 82.6 79.9 86.4
White 200 2000 87.4 83.7 94.3
African-American
200 2000 84.3 80.6 89.7
White 200 2010 89.0 84.5
African-American
200 2010 85.8 81.7 92.7
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 8 of 13
3.3. Comparison of Yearly Mortality Rates of NBA Players with the General Population
Figure 3shows the standard mortality ratios computed when comparing the age-adjusted
mortality rates of African-American and white NBA players to those of the respective general US
populations from 2000 through 2014. For almost all years analyzed, the SMRs are less than 1, implying
that NBA players have lower mortality rates than the general population.
Figure 3.
Standard mortality ratios between observed and expected mortality rates among African-
American and white NBA players, compared to their respective general US populations.
While most of SMRs for white players are close to 1, those for African-Americans are lower,
with most values around 0.6, ranging from 0.3 (2000 and 2008) to 0.92 (2002); this represents a greater
difference in mortality with respect to the general African-American population.
4. Discussion
We analyzed factors associated with mortality among NBA players and compared the LE of NBA
players to that in the general population. To achieve this aim, we analyzed data from the 3985 players
who participated in the NBA from its inception in 1946 to April 2015.
After adjusting for age at the end of the season and calendar year, we found that mortality is
associated with height and ethnicity. Taller players and African-American players have a higher
instantaneous death risk than smaller or white players. In addition, overall instantaneous risk of death
has decreased over time because players’ LE has increased since the inception of the NBA, regardless
of height and ethnicity.
However, for the same height and time period, we observed differences between the LE of white
and African-American players (Table 3). African-American players have lower mortality than the
general African-American population. There were differences for at least in four of the years between
2000 and 2014, and a trend is also evident (Figure 3).
The mortality risk of African-American players in this cohort was lower than that of the general
US African-American male population, and it is not obvious why this healthy worker effect (HWE) [
30
]
is only seen in African-American players. Recall that HWE refers to the tendency of the actively
employed to have a more favorable mortality experience than the population at large.
The reason may be related to the progressive equalization of wages between African-American and
white NBA players. There have been reports on ethnicity-based salary discrimination in professional
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 9 of 13
basketball, where African-American players were paid less than white players for similar levels of
performance [
31
]. However, results from this study indicate reported that the NBA has equitable
treatment for players of both ethnicities, at least with regard to veteran free agents, as reported
previously [32].
This finding contrasts with the wage gap between African-American and white workers in the general
population, which grew from 16.9% in 1979 to 22.5% in 2014 [
33
]. The relative “ethnicity advantage” of
African-American players with respect to the general African-American population is thought to be
partly due to salary, owing to the known impact of wage on socioeconomic status (SES). Nonetheless,
while SES is the most important factor, it is not the only one that explains racial differences in
mortality [34].
The significant effect of ethnicity on mortality could therefore be partly explained by historical
salary differences between African-American and white players, at least up to the mid-1980s [
31
,
35
].
The effect of wage equalization on players’ instantaneous risk of death should be evaluated again in
the future when data on the mortality of players who played from the mid-1980s onwards become
available); notably, the “racial” salary gap has started to grow again since 2006 [35].
However, it is also possible that other features related to ethnicity could affect death risk.
For example, the authors of [
36
] commented on the results from the study of 566 NBA players
carried out by Engel et al. [
9
]. Left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH) was observed in 27.4% of athletes,
with ethnicity identified as a key determinant of the prevalence and geometric pattern of LVH
(more prevalent in African-American players). Marked changes in electrocardiographic repolarization
have also been demonstrated in athletes of African-American ethnicity [37].
Further, African-American players have a significantly higher likelihood of dying from cardiac
disease than white players [
38
]. Although of great interest, the conclusions derived by Engel et al.
contribute to a framework to help to avoid unnecessary exclusion of athletes from competition,
rather than to predicting further negative health outcomes [
9
]. Therefore, factors associated with
mortality of basketball players following heart events are still a topic of interest.
While most studies find that taller people have lower rates of CVD than shorter people [
39
],
it is also evident than a notable number of NBA players suffer from heart problems. For example,
Larry Bird was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 1995, and current players LaMarcus Aldridge,
Jeff Green, and Channing Frye have had heart issues [
16
]. Indeed, increasing height is an independent
risk factor for atrial fibrillation, and measured and genetically determined height have been reported
to be significantly associated with PR interval and QRS duration [40].
Regarding respiratory diseases, height is a positive predictor of emphysema in patients with
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [
41
], although conversely, height was found to be inversely
associated with mortality [42,43].
Our study has also confirmed that height is positively associated with mortality, as other studies
have previously shown [
13
,
38
]). Lemez et al. did not find substantive variability in the causes of
death between basketball players and the general population [
38
], highlighting the need for further
work. As previously mentioned, height has been found to be positively associated with cancer risk
and negatively associated with CVD in other populations [
10
12
]. Better understanding of the special
features of basketball players regarding height is needed to analyze the relationship with diseases,
most notably CVD, because height is an independent risk factor for atrial fibrillation [
40
]. While height
has been inversely associated with CVD in many studies, numerous basketball players suffer from
heart problems and have high risk of sports-related SCD and PE.
However, it has been found that elite and team athletes of aerobic–anaerobic sports live longer
than the general population [
19
,
20
]. This apparent contradiction between positive and negative factors
highlights the need to better understand the causes of mortality in retired basketball players and their
LE compared with the general population.
It is also important to mention that the remaining covariables considered when estimating the
models were not relevant. Handedness was a special interest because some studies have shown that
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 10 of 13
left-handers have lower longevity than right-handers [
44
]. However, our results do not support this
relationship, as another study has also found [39].
Our Model II makes predictions about the LE of NBA players. For example, the estimated median
age at death for former NBA players with characteristics similar to Larry Bird’s (height = 205.74 m,
white NBA player, and NBA debut in 1979) is 82.8 years (95% CI: 80.1–86).
4.1. Limitations and Strengths
The main limitation of our study is the limited knowledge about the life-history of players once
they retire. It is well known that some remain active with a healthy lifestyle, while others gain excessive
weight. In addition, we did not have access to disease or family data nor the clinical history of the
players. Therefore, our results are only suggestive about a general association between mortality and
height and ethnicity.
We considered the number of games played as a proxy to measure the volume of exercise, but we
do not have tracking data that can inform about the intensity, load or density of exercise. We also had
information about the number of minutes played and the number of minutes per game played, but all
three variables were highly correlated. Further, we had missing data of minutes played for 344 players,
so we only analyzed the number of games played. Very extreme or very intense exercise has been
related to mortality [
24
], but we did not find any association between the number of games played
and risk of death. However, many of the players in our sample had careers outside the NBA, playing
in other leagues inside and outside United States. While some of these competitions are also very
demanding (especially the major European competitions), the level of physical requirement is lower
than that for the NBA. However, this absent information was a shortcoming for our analysis.
A considerable percentage of games in the NBA are considered as “close games” [
45
],
where home/away teams are winning by less than 10 points at the end of the 3rd quarter. Specifically,
we explored a large data base provided by www.nbastuffer.com; a sample of 2623 regular season and
play-off games between 2009 and 2011. The percentage of “close games” was 52.2%. This probably
means that the distribution of close games in our whole sample is not homogenous, but these claims
should be tested in further research with more comprehensive data. It is known that emotional
stressors trigger cardiovascular events [
46
], but literature has also shown that high drama/intensity
experience lived by sports fans can be associated with changes in cardiovascular death rates in the
short term, depending on winning (decrease) or losing (increase) [
47
]. Therefore, it is not clear how
highly intense, mentally demanding games in the NBA could influence mortality in the long term,
considering the possible moderating factor of winning vs. losing close games. In addition, divergences
in intensity between players are not related to the risk of all-cause mortality [
48
], as has been suggested
after comparing National Football League participation as a career player with participation as
a replacement player.
Finally, regarding ethnicity, we recognize the complexity of considering this variable in our
analysis. As Pedro Gómez pointed out, we have thousands of genes that are invisible except for
a few anatomical features such as skin color [
49
], so categorizing individuals only for one visible
feature could be deemed crude. We followed the example of other studies that used the simplistic
categorization of White versus African-American using skin color [
9
]. However, we took precautions
to carefully consider and eliminate “mixed ethnicity” from the analysis, in order to take into account
players with white and African-American parents (56, 1.6%).
The aim of our study was to analyze overall mortality, but not specific mortality, as Lemez et al.
recently did [
38
]. This requires advanced survival analysis, such as the competing risk method,
to analyze the causes of death. However, we believe it would be necessary to reduce the number of
missing cases. Lemez et al. [
38
] had 34.7% of missing cases and in a search, we obtained 39.6% of
missing cases. However, it is difficult to know the causes of death of players where information is not
available from public sources.
Appl. Sci. 2019,9, 500 11 of 13
Regarding methodological considerations, we analyzed survival time, rather than a dichotomous
response variable (alive or dead). Moreover, we considered the age at death of NBA players to estimate
LE. Finally, we used SMRs to compare the mortality of African-American and white NBA players with
that in the general African-American and white US population.
4.2. Practical Implications
Evaluating mortality among NBA players will be useful for devising strategies for health
interventions and the proper allocation of resources with respect to the general population.
In 2015, players’ associations began to increase their efforts to offer cardiac screening and to raise
awareness about the incidence of these diseases among retired players [
50
]. The NBA also began to
provide information on healthy practices that could help improve their overall health status.
5. Conclusions
Mortality among NBA players was associated with ethnicity and height. White players and small
players live longer. In addition, NBA players have a lower instantaneous risk of death than the general
US population. This difference is especially notable among African-American players, with respect to
the US African-American population.
Supplementary Materials:
The following are available online at http://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/9/3/500/s1.
Author Contributions:
All authors contributed to the paper. Conceptualization, J.A.M. and M.C.; Data curation,
J.A.M., J.F. and M.C.; Formal analysis, K.L. and M.C.; Project administration, J.A.M. and M.C.; Resources, J.A.M.;
Supervision, J.A.M., K.L., J.F. and M.C.; Validation, J.A.M. and M.C.; Visualization, K.L.; Writing—original draft,
J.A.M., K.L. and M.C.; Writing—review and editing, J.A.M., K.L., J.F. and M.C.
Funding:
J.A.M. acknowledges the financial support from project ECO2015-65637-P (MINECO/FEDER). K.L.
acknowledges the financial support from project MTM2015-64465-C2-1-R (MINECO/FEDER). This study is the
result of the activity carried out under the program Groups of Excellence of the region of Murcia, the Fundación
Séneca, Science and Technology Agency of the region of Murcia project 19884/GERM/15.
Conflicts of Interest: None of the authors have any conflict of interest to declare.
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