Recommendations to aid NFL players’ health

4 min read

New Harvard report addresses legal and ethical concerns affecting those on the field

The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University released a set of recommendations today on issues affecting the health of National Football League (NFL) players. Among its major recommendations, the study said that club medical staffs should not have divided loyalties between players and clubs.

The study also suggested further research into the health effects of playing football, and said that health care improvements should never be a bargaining chip in negotiating sessions between the NFL and the players union.

A research initiative composed of data from several ongoing studies, the report, which is nearly 500 pages long, is based on an analysis performed over two years by researchers from The Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School. It’s the first comprehensive analysis of the legal and ethical obligations of groups influencing NFL players’ health.

The report reviewed and evaluated the roles of 20 relevant stakeholders, including the NFL, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), players, and team doctors. The report made 10 major recommendations, and 76 in all.

Its highlight findings addressed these key issues:

  • Conflicts of interest: The current arrangement under which a team’s medical staff, including doctors and athletic trainers, have responsibility both to the players and to the club presents an inherent structural conflict of interest. A division of responsibilities between two groups of medical professionals is needed to minimize such conflict and ensure that players receive medical care that is as unbiased and uninfluenced by competing interests as possible. Care and treatment should be provided by one set of medical professionals, called the “players’ medical staff,” appointed by a joint committee with representation from both the NFL and NFLPA. The evaluation of players for business purposes should be conducted by a separate set of medical personnel, known as the “club evaluation doctors.”
  • Player health and adversarial collective bargaining: The NFL and NFLPA should refrain from making improvements to player health policies a bargaining chip in labor negotiations, to the extent that this is not already the case. Players should never be asked to trade their health care for other benefits in the collective bargaining process.
  • Ethical guidelines: Various stakeholders — including club doctors, athletic trainers, coaches, contract advisers, and financial advisers — should adopt, improve, and enforce codes of ethics specific to the environment of the NFL.
  • Ongoing research into the health effects of the game: The NFL and NFLPA should continue to initiate and support efforts to scientifically and reliably identify the health risks and benefits of playing pro football.
  • Access to data: The NFL and, to the extent possible, the NFLPA should make aggregate injury data publicly available for independent reanalysis. They should also continue to improve their data collection and offer it to qualified professionals for analysis.
  • Meaningful penalties: The collective bargaining agreement should be amended to impose meaningful fines on any club or person found to have violated players’ rights to medical care and treatment.
  • Investing in players’ health and care: The NFLPA should consider investing greater resources to investigate and enforce player health issues and enforce player rights.

This report recommends that responsibility for player health should fall upon a diverse but interconnected web of the groups involved.

“Our report shows how the various stakeholders might work together to protect and support NFL players who give so much of themselves — not without benefit, but sometimes with serious personal consequences — to one of America’s favorite sports,” said Glenn Cohen, professor of law at Harvard Law School and co-lead of the law and ethics initiative as part of the health study.

“We are committed to addressing the needs of ‘the whole player, the whole life,’” said Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and research director of the study. “As a physician, I know we must take an interdisciplinary approach to address important ethical and structural factors. This report elucidates many valuable points that we hope will lead to productive dialogue.”

“This report offers vital recommendations to improve player health,” said Ed Reynolds, a former linebacker with the New England Patriots and New York Giants and an adviser on the study. “Many individuals and groups are involved, and we must continue this important dialogue to help keep NFL athletes healthy on the field and long after.”

In the coming months, the law and ethics initiative will release several additional publications that cover other legal and ethical issues affecting NFL player health.