This week the National Football League Players Association announced a grant of $100 million to fund a study designed to diagnose, treat and prevent injuries in active and retired players.
The study, conducted at Harvard University, will take 10 years. Dr. Lee Nadler, dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School, spoke this week about the intention of the research.“We don’t want to lessen the sport,” Nadler said. “We don’t want to make the sport not exciting anymore. But there are ways of making sure that the players’ health is well attended to. I think that’s our objective.”
According to Nadler, the benefits of the Harvard Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members will not be limited to NFLPA members.
“There are millions of young people who play football here in the United States,” Nadler said. “There are lots of other people who play contact sports — hockey, girls’ soccer, etc. — that are equally dangerous in many ways, and what we learn will also help them.”
One group that’s very interested in the planned study is the Retired Players Association. Minnesota Vikings legend and Hall of Famer Carl Eller, who heads the association, and Dr. Laura Alberton of the Scripps Medical Group in San Diego, who is a member of the association’s board, joined Bill Littlefield.
While head injuries have received the majority of attention in the national media, both Eller and Alberton are pleased the study will address a wide range of issues.
“There’s a myriad of concerns,” Eller said. “Of course a lot of them are physical like orthopedic-type issues and then later on with other age issues related to mental health or dementia, things like that. But early on, they basically suffer from what I call ‘heroism.’ And that is to be able to transfer effectively from their playing days into a career after they’re off the field and that’s an area that I think we should really look at seriously.”
“Because [former NFL players] have been so indestructible, sometimes diagnoses of diabetes or hypertension, heart disease, stroke — things along those lines — get ignored until they become more problematic,” Alberton added. “Same thing with kidney failure and other issues, so I think it’s also important to have an all-encompassing approach, which [it] sounds like Dr. Nadler’s group is planning on doing. And it’s important to educate the players about their medical, as well as mental, health.”
Health education may be of increasing importance in light of a recent study conducted by the NFL Players Union which showed that a majority of current players are not satisfied with the way their teams manage injuries, and do not trust their teams’ medical staffs.
According to Eller, during his playing days from 1964 to 1979, he and his peers did not question team doctors.
“We relied on our medical advice almost, you know, 100 percent,” he said. “And there was very rarely something like a second opinion. That might have been to our own demise to a certain extent because you’ll hear a lot of players talk about, well they never were warned or they were never aware of the possible long-term damage from things like concussions and stuff like that. So it’s probably a good sign at least that they are investigating into their own health.”
Eller says the RPA wants more involvement in how former players are treated for medical issues.
“The [NFLPA] is really in conflict with us, the retired players, because we feel that we can offer many, you know, benefits to the current players that will affect them later in life and in fact we have an appeal against the [NFLPA],” Eller said. “We’re looking to have more input. We want to be more in control of our own health and our own issues. We would like to see this more retired-player directed.”
Alberton is hopeful that the Harvard study can lead to long-term health benefits for players.
“The best-case scenario would be that we can identify … players who are at risk of injury and try to prevent those injuries,” she said. “And then once they’ve had a certain injury, be able to give them a future perspective on what the long-term consequences of an injury could be. But I think ultimately preventing detrimental, life-long consequences of loving and playing the sport.”