by Jason Block, MD
I’m a rabid New Orleans Saints fan. Raised in Louisiana, I started going to games as a young child, joining my grandfather, dad, brother and others. I have reveled in their highs (in the last few years) and despaired in their lows (many, many over their history). I even went to the Super Bowl in 2010 when the Saints won. Needless to say, I have a Drew Brees jersey and consider him to be one of the greats. He is a future Hall of Famer, a remarkable community asset, and a true leader. So what does Drew Brees have to do with the obesity epidemic? In one word: endorsements.
As a physician, it’s easy to see how my enjoyment of professional football walks the hypocrisy line. Football can be a violent sport, with long-term sequelae from injuries sustained while playing. But, a perhaps more insidious hypocrisy lurks for those who have committed to reversing the obesity epidemic: the ubiquitous endorsements by professional athletes of unhealthy foods and drinks. By endorsing Pepsi, Drew Brees joins many others contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Unhealthy foods are often endorsed
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics examined endorsement deals for the top 100 athletes in 2010. They used a list called the Power 100, which ranks athletes by how prominent they are and how much money they earn from endorsements. The authors of the study found that athletes commonly endorsed food and beverages, 2nd to sports apparel among 11 categories of endorsements examined. And, not surprisingly, over ¾ of the foods and nearly all of the drinks endorsed were unhealthy. Serena Williams and Dale Earhardt, Jr. appeared to endorse the unhealthiest foods. Sports leagues have gotten in on the unhealthy food promotion as well. For example, the NFL is heavily enriched by its endorsement contracts from unhealthy food and beverage companies, as are the individual teams. This happens despite the NFL developing their Play 60 program to “tackle childhood obesity” by “encouraging [children] to be active for at least 60 minutes a day”.
Does this all matter? Yes! It’s well acknowledged that certain foods, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic and that reducing their consumption should have great benefits. And, celebrities are influential. A study of 1551 parents found that endorsement by a celebrity makes parents more likely to choose an unhealthy food/drink product and to believe that the product was healthier than those without an endorsement.
Reconciling endorsements and fighting obesity
How can the NFL, other leagues, and professional athletes reconcile their endorsements with their stated desire to address a population health crisis? We can’t expect them to forego the largesse from food and drink companies entirely. But, they could be more forthright about the link between products they endorse and obesity. Commercials like this from Gatorade and Peyton Manning are a start but don’t go nearly far enough.
Sports leagues and their players also could state clearly that professional athletes are fundamentally different from the rest of the population. These athletes spend their days at the extreme. They burn exponentially more calories daily than what can be achieved with even 60 minutes of typical daily exercise (which is much more than what most people get anyway). Consuming sugary drinks after high-level exercise for hours a day is fine. Doing so with minimal to no exercise is not. Leagues and players could also better highlight the role of food in the obesity epidemic. Typically, they focus only on exercise.
Will I continue to cheer on Drew Brees and the Saints? Of course. But, I will advocate that he and the team address this issue as enthusiastically as they take on endorsements.