Harvard’s Advice for NFL Player Health and Safety image

MMQB, Sports Illustrated, May 15, 2017
Jenny Vrentas, quoting I. Glenn Cohen (Faculty Director) and citing Petrie-Flom's report


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Today’s 255-page report comes from Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for health law policy, biotechnology and bioethics, and it compares the NFL’s policies and practices concerning player health against five other North American sports leagues—MLB, the NBA, the NHL, MLS and the CFL. The Harvard researchers emphasize that their work is independent, and that the agreement for the funding stipulates protection from any influence by the NFLPA or the NFL. An underlying question to the research: Is enough being done to preserve the game?

It’s a tricky question, one that’s hard to answer when comparing the NFL to fundamentally different sports leagues. On one hand, the authors write that overall “the NFL’s policies concerning player health appear superior to the other leagues,” in areas such as the breadth of player benefits and the control players have over their own care. On the other hand, they present statistics highlighting higher per-game injury rates in the NFL compared to other leagues, based on available injury data.

The mean number of injuries suffered in each NFL game, per the report, is about 4.9 times the combined sum of MLB, the NBA and the NHL and the NFL’s per-game concussion rate is about 6.9 times the combined sum of four other non-football leagues. Of course, the NFL plays far fewer games than the other Big Four leagues (NHL, NBA, MLB), so while an NFL player is more likely to suffer a concussion in a regular-season game than an NHL player, a pro hockey player is more likely to suffer a concussion over the course of a season than a pro football player. But the point, particularly when compared to non-contact sports like basketball and baseball, is this: If football is more dangerous, shouldn’t it follow that the policies are more protective? In other words, the real question for the NFL and the NFL Players Association should be: Are we doing enough for our players given our unique injury risks?

The Harvard researchers put forth nine recommendations for improvements to NFL policies. Among them: Removing the requirement that teams disclose the specific location of a player’s injury in their weekly reports, akin to the NHL, to discourage targeting of injuries; offering treatment for not only recreational drugs violations but also PEDs, as the NBA does; and having neutral doctors perform preseason physicals, as is practice in the CFL, to avoid any potential conflict of interest created by the team having financial liability for past injuries.

“We are in a moment where [because of] people’s attitudes toward football and toward the health risks of football, these conversations have to happen,” says I. Glenn Cohen, Harvard Law School professor and a co-author of the study. “And it’s also a time when the NFL is more sensitive to the public perception as well.”

Download the Football Players Health Study Law & Ethics Initiative's full report, "Comparing Health-Related Policies & Practices in Sports: The NFL and Other Professional Leagues," now!

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