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In safety Rx, NFL makes high-profile recruit

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In its efforts to improve player safety, the National Football League has recruited a prominent physician, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, as its first chief health advisor.

Nabel, a cardiologist, is the president of the prestigious, Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is also a professor of medicine at Harvard.

In her new advisory role at the NFL, which is expected to consume about one day a month of her time, she will have broad oversight over internal and external medical staff, a league spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions. That oversight includes potentially changing what the NFL spends its research dollars on, which totaled more than $30 million last year.

“My first order of business is to review the medical, health and scientific priorities that the NFL currently has in place, as well as assess the medical protocols and ongoing scientific research collaborations,” Nabel said in a written statement.

Last year, the NFL agreed to settle a class action lawsuit for $765 million. The lawsuit was brought by thousands of former football players over head injuries and concussions.

“It’s been a very serious problem for a long time,” says Robert Cantu, professor of neurosurgery at Boston University and one of about 80 medical experts who advise the NFL. Their research, safety recommendations, and resultant rules changes have reduced concussions by 36 percent over three years, says Cantu.

Elizabeth Nabel will be looking at the work the NFL’s advisors have already done and are currently engaged in. Cantu says Nabel will bring her leadership background in running a major hospital, and the resultant skill set of working with many medical experts.

“As an administrator of a high-profile hospital, with the natural egos that go with very outstanding staff, it is a little bit like herding cats,” says Cantu.

“The NFL is on such a ubiquitous platform, and it’s had such a spotlight on it,” says Dan Lebowitz, who heads the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

“Looking at the practices within the league around safety … is not only smart,” he says. “It’s important in terms of the sustainability of the league.”

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