Just How Dangerous IS the NFL vs. Other Sports?

Turns out, yeah, pretty dangerous, actually.

As I’m working on my dissertation literature review I figured I’d put a small piece of it to good use for someone other than my committee. 4 people would normally read this, so I’m really hoping we can double that.

There is a wide-ranging belief that the NFL has the highest injury rates of the major North American sports, but by how much? Because game injury rates (rather than injury rates in practices) tend to be easier to calculate (and more available across studies) than those incorporating practices, we’ll focus exclusively on those.

We’ll need to introduce one concept to make the analyses below make sense: the idea of an “athlete-exposure” (AE). This is simply defined as 1 athlete participating in a practice or, in the case of this article, a game. Thus a single NFL game where every available player plays in the game would count for 92 athlete exposures – the 46 guys on the active game day roster on each of the two teams. All the injury rates below are presented per 1,000 AEs.

The studies compared below all have differences in how exactly injuries are defined (namely how much practice/competition time a player has to miss for something to count as an “injury”) and the years they covered, but in an effort to ensure high-quality data I’ve limited the studies to official league injury surveillance systems wherever possible.

Injury Rates Across Sports

Among the “Big 4” North American sports, the NFL has by far the highest game injury rate at 75.4 per 1,000 AEs. This means for every 1,000 players playing in a single game, 75.4 will suffer some sort of injury. So in a single game with 92 AEs, you might expect about 75.4 x 92/1,000 = ~7 injuries.

Compared to the other Big 4 North American sports, the NFL thus has roughly 4-5 times the in-game injury rate of the NBA, MLB, and NHL.

What about more international sports (MLS statistics weren’t readily available, so soccer goes here, stop complaining)? The NFL also has roughly 4 times the in-game injury rate of soccer and, interestingly, Australian rules football.

The only sport that comes close to touching the in-game injury rate of the NFL is rugby. The data are variable, but in general rugby seems to have either a similar or higher injury rate to the NFL. I wanted to look into concussions specifically in the NFL vs. rugby, but I’ve found some conflicting data and I want to do more research on this before saying anything.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the data sources unless you want to click below the jump, where I’ve included everything you should need to evaluate these on your own if you want!

UPDATE ~6 hours after original post:

I purposefully simplified or ignored quite a few issues in writing this post to try to communicate my main point, but some good questions from friends have come up and I want to briefly address a couple shortcomings of this analysis:

  1. This post only considers one possible way to measure injury rates: per player-game. The results would likely look substantially different if we used another, more precise denominator such as player-hours. The NHL numbers, in particular, would look higher relative to the NBA and MLB in such an analysis since hockey players on average play a lower proportion of each game than baseball or basketball players. So this is not the be-all end-all answer for which sport is the “most dangerous.”
  2. Along those same lines, although the risk of being hurt in any given NFL game is way higher athletes play way more games in the NBA, NHL, and MLB. So the differences across sports in an individual athlete’s risk of being injured in a season are going to be much less than the differences in injury rates I’ve shown here. Maybe I’ll take a stab at calculating risks in another post!

In a nutshell: this is just one way of measuring which sport is more “dangerous,” and it’s probably the way that casts the NFL in the most negative light. Injury rates per player-hour or 1-season risks would likely make football look less dramatically bad.

Continue reading “Just How Dangerous IS the NFL vs. Other Sports?”