NFL players hire Harvard for health study

Trent Edwards #5 of the Buffalo Bills suffers a concussion after getting hit during the first half of an NFL game on October 5, 2008. NFL players will spend $100 million on a 10-year study to find out just how hazardous football is to their health.

More than 100 million people are gonna tune in to the Super Bowl this weekend. Some of 'em for the ads. More, probably, for the game which promises to be three-plus hours of really big and fast men running into each other at full speed.

Those collision and hard hits have started getting another kind of attention: Neurological. The NFL Players Association has given Harvard Medical School a $100 million grant to study player health.

Football is violent; listen to an NFL linebacker and you hear the sound of pushing, shoving, and cracking helmets as he tries to tackle running backs and wide receivers.

What are the long-term consequences of colliding with 200-pound men again, again and again?

“Not everybody who gets hit in the head gets a concussion. Not everybody who gets a concussion someday is not well,” says Dr. Lee Nadler, the dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School. Nadler will be heading up decade long study into head trauma and all the other injuries that come from playing tackle football. He says the goal is to figure out who is at risk for neurological disorders, and if possible how to prevent certain injuries.

The NFL players themselves are funding this $100 million study out of their own pockets. Duke sports law professor Paul Haagen says they had to do it.

“They need to have a relatively clear sense of what the danger are because this is their livelihood,” says Haagen.

The professor says medical research will give players more leverage negotiating game changes, like tackling rules, and extending the season. But that same research could also put the NFL -- a $9 billion-a-year industry -- in jeopardy.

“What we are talking about is a serious threat to a sport at the height of its popularity,” he says.

Sunday may be about the halftime show, the quirky commercials and the final score, but long-term, the game is all about the hits, the hits, the hits.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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