NFL Union Funds Study of Injury Risk
By RON WINSLOW
Wall Street Journal
January 29, 2013
The National Football League players union is funding a 10-year, $100 million research project at Harvard Medical School to reduce the impact of on-the-field injuries and improve the long-term health of players.
The effort comes amid growing concern about the risk of brain injuries in football, but the scope extends well beyond concussions to bone and joint injury, heart disease, depression and chronic pain that affect many players long after their careers are over. The aim is to collect more data about players’ health and come up with new treatments and strategies to reduce injury and improve their quality of life.
“We recognize that football is an inherently dangerous game,” said Sean Sansiveri, lead counsel on the project for the National Football League Players Association. “This is aimed at changing the outcomes of working in that inherently dangerous game.”
The NFL is under mounting pressure over injuries. Just this past weekend, President Barack Obama said in an interview in the New Republic that he would be reluctant to allow a son to play football because of safety concerns. Last week, the family of star linebacker Junior Seau—found to have a degenerative brain disease in an autopsy after he committed suicide last May—filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL.
The $100 million comes from money paid to the NFLPA by the NFL under the recent collective-bargaining agreement. “It is money that could go to benefits and salary, but [the association] opted to put it toward health and safety benefits for our guys,” said Domonique Foxworth, president of the NFLPA and a former defensive back whose career was cut short by a knee injury.
The NFL said Monday that it “saluted” the NFLPA’s efforts, and that “we look forward to learning more about the Harvard study and hope that it will play an important role in advancing medical science.” The league added: “We have no higher priority than player health and safety at all levels of the game.”
Research will address an apparent medical paradox: NFL players are superior athletes in top physical condition. Yet, there is anecdotal evidence that they suffer disproportionately from a variety of physical and mental-health disorders that cut short playing days and possibly even their life span.
Key to the project is a plan to recruit a cohort of 1,000 retired players, take their personal histories and run a variety of genetic, blood, imaging and psychological tests to look for markers associated with good or poor health.
For instance, Ross Zafonte, a traumatic-brain-injury and rehabilitation expert at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, said he was treating two patients who played the same position for a similar time in the league. One is thriving in his post-football years while the other is having “major problems with memory, moving joints and general health.”
The hope is that identifying factors that explain such differences may lead to strategies to mitigate long-term risks, said Dr. Zafonte, the project’s co-director.
In his interview, Mr. Obama said it was likely the game would change to become less violent. But leaders of the project said that isn’t their focus.
“We are not trying to change this game,” said Lee Nadler, dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School and director of the new project. “We are trying to improve the quality-of-life years for the players who play the game.”
Harvard was selected to run the project, officials of both groups said, because of its ability to assemble experts from disparate fields and often competing institutions within and outside the university to address a broad number of problems affecting players beyond brain or joint issues.
“It doesn’t matter if you fix the knee if the rest of your life isn’t very productive or useful,” said Dr. Nadler.
Research already under way at Harvard-affiliated institutions that could lead to improvements for players includes new technology to improve healing of injured joints and studies indicating prolonged strength training may put players like linemen at increased risk of heart failure later in life.
The new project plans to produce a smartphone app that would provide health information to players, communicate findings of the research and help direct them quickly to better treatments.
Other initiatives could provide coaches, doctors and players with better tools to assess game-time injuries.
Controversy arose this month over why Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III remained in an NFL playoff game Jan. 6 after hurting a previously injured knee early in the contest. He injured it again late in the game and then had surgery to repair it.
“We need a simple, accurate way on the sidelines to say, ‘No, it’s not safe,’ ” Dr. Nadler said. “We’d like to make it medicine, not judgment.”