Battle of the bulge

Updated: March 3, 2005, 4:39 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Great news for fat people everywhere! The National Football League says its players are no more obese than you!

Well, it's great news until you remember what some NFL players look like, anyway. Then you're back to binge Cheetos eating and apple pie slathered in pastrami at midnight.

It seems that an endocrinologist at the University of North Carolina, apparently after a hard weekend watching the combine workouts on the NFL Network, did a little study on obesity and NFL players and came to the conclusion that they are way too ovoid for their own good.

More specifically, she used the listed heights and weights of more than 2,000 NFL players to create a body-mass index that indicates that 56 percent of those players (about 1,200, give or take a canned ham) are technically, if not actually, obese.

Well, we've seen our share of NFL games, and we're here to tell you that the league has some real dump trucks on the payroll.

But that's not why we bring this up.

The NFL's response was to declare the study bad science and patent nonsense, probably because the idea of using listed heights and weights to create a scientific database is a lot like basing a scholarly history of the American Revolution on the children's book, "The War Between The Vowels And Consonants." The Bears still list William Perry as weighing 330, for God's sake.

But that's not why we brought it up, either. It was this little tidbit from NFL P.R. priest Greg Aiello, who said in ridiculing the study that the NFL's obesity problem is no worse than that in society, where it sits at a mere 30 percent.

Oh, well, that's comforting. I mean, have you seen the general public lately? They are dirigibles with feet, shaped like Brazil lying on its side, bloated like snakes after a delicious luncheon of braised horse.

Somehow, Aiello concluded that comparing the average NFL player to the average NFL customer would be a good idea.

Well, it's a terrible idea, and I can prove it, starting with the disturbing fact that I have seen myself in a bathing suit.

We will now take a quiet moment while you try to choke down the bile rising in your throats. ... All better? Good. ... Let's proceed.

First, the NFL almost certainly does have an obesity problem. This isn't the study that proves it, of course, but the NFL has in recent years become more fixated on attacking messengers bearing bad news than the bad news itself. Thirty percent is an absurdly high figure in a sport that requires so much cardiovascular strain.

A trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs suggested that a more meaningful measure might be taking heights and weights and figuring in waist size. Not being endocrinologists, the rest of us would be helped as much if a man in a clown suit and a clawhammer said that obesity could be figured by counting the bumps on a man's head, but if there is better science out there, we should see it.

But that's the pedantic argument, the one designed to help mask a problem. The real issue here is something else entirely, and we'll sum it up for you:

SAYING THAT NFL PLAYERS ARE NO MORE OBESE THAN THE REST OF SOCIETY IS LIKE SAYING THEY ARE ONE ÉCLAIR SHORT OF EXPLODING!

And let indelicacy rule the day here. People don't want to flip on their set at 1:15 p.m. on an autumn Sunday and see that their Pro Bowl guard just showered the 35-yard line with great hunks of suet.

Put another way, NFL players are supposed to be fitter than the average American, first and most obviously because their jobs demand it. Football is a cruel and savage sport, noted for its carnage and easy gambling propositions, and the idea that a guy as fat as your average shop foreman can excel at it sort of blows the mystery the league pays Rich Eisen so much money to flog.

We don't want to hear that NFL players are Hostess snack cake whores any more than we want to hear that we are. We are watching the games because we want to wade in the illusion that they are athletes performing tasks that require a finely tuned skill set, not rolling couches with throw pillows shoved under their shirts and the back of their pants.

We want our players to hit a training table that does not groan under the weight of platters of chicken-fried-lard and bacon smothered in fatback. We certainly don't want them looking like it, anyway.

So maybe Aiello should rethink his claims to say something more along the lines of this:

"Fifty-six percent? Jesus in Heaven, if it were that high, we'd kill the league and join the PBA. Hell, 30 percent is ridiculous. If you're in the 30 percent, we want you in the stadium, but we want you to pay us, not the other way around. We are going to be very proactive on this issue, because the very last thing on the planet we want is for our players to look like our fans. The NFL loves the occasional salad, and a small tub of yogurt between hub caps full of buffalo wings wouldn't hurt, either."

This would lead to a six-year, eight-figure deal with Amalgamated Turnip, and a new leaguewide "Eat Healthy, Or We'll Crush You Where You Stand" ad campaign. It would work, too, at least until the Raiders sign a nutritionist who has figured out how to deep-fry parsley -- then the hideous cycle would resume.

But at least next time, nobody will make the mistake of saying that the players look like the rest of us. That can never be allowed to happen again.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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