The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) is putting its money where its mouth is, awarding Harvard Medical School a $100 million grant to find ways to prevent and treat a whole host of illnesses that current and ex-players face, from brain damage to heart trouble to mental woes.
The announcement was made on Tuesday about the union’s partnership with Harvard to develop a 10-year initiative — Harvard Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members.
“The program will marshal the intellectual, scientific, and medical expertise throughout Harvard University to discover new approaches to diagnosing, treating, and preventing injuries and illnesses in both active and retired players,” the press release from Harvard said.
Researchers plan to immediately partner with NFL players themselves, identifying a group of at least 1,000 retired athletes from across the country. From this group, researchers will identify 100 healthy and 100 unhealthy players, and through a series of tests and examinations create what the researchers describe as a “biological profile of illness.”
Such a comprehensive study of football players has never been done before, and Harvard said this kind of effort “is critical to developing novel tests that can detect the earliest signs of problems in active players, and to investigating interventions to prevent them.”
The grant comes in the wake of several ex-NFL players, including Junior Seau, committing suicide and then it being determined that they were suffering from a degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to repeated blows to the head.
“We are honored to work with the NFLPA to address the health challenges faced by NFL players and so many of America’s athletes,” Jeffrey Flier, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University, said in a statement.
“We will harness the vast expertise of Harvard Medical School, its world-class affiliated hospitals, and Harvard University’s 10 Schools to ensure that we make a meaningful difference in the lives of these players through advances in medicine, science, and technology,” he said. “We are committed to going beyond our walls. We will reach out to other institutions when necessary, in order to access the resources needed to solve the most pressing medical issues identified by the NFLPA.”
There were other comments from Harvard officials.
“Our goal is to transform the health of these athletes,” said Lee Nadler, HMS dean for clinical and translational research, Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and director of Harvard Catalyst, who will direct the program.
“In order to extend the life expectancy and quality of life of NFLPA members, we must understand the entire athlete, all the associated health risks, and all of their interactions,” Nadler said. “We refer to this comprehensive approach as the ‘Integrated NFL Player.’ Harvard Catalyst will convene and connect investigators from all disciplines, in all departments, across all of Harvard’s component Schools and affiliated hospitals, to work as a single team.”
The announcement pointed out that pro football players often develop severe disabilities related to head trauma, heart problems, diabetes, joint and other skeletal injuries, as well as psychological stress.
“Americans have become increasingly concerned about the risks posed by participation in contact sports,” the press release said. “The program’s goal is to improve the health and well-being of NFL players, while further elucidating the risks of participation in American football. The researchers will develop strategies for preventing injuries, illness, and the undesirable consequences that sometimes result from participation in contact sports.”
There is a very long list of specialists who will comprise the program’s leadership team. Joining Nadler as co-director is Ross Zafonte, Earle P. and Ida S. Charlton Professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
And the associate directors will be William Meehan, director of the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, assistant professor of sports and emergency medicine, and director of the Sports Concussion Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Alvaro Pascual-Leone, HMS associate dean for clinical and translational research, professor of neurology, and director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“Our partnership with the NFLPA will contribute to transforming our understanding of the effects of physical demands, emotional stress, and repetitive trauma on disease,” Zafonte said in a statement. “We are excited about the contributions this extraordinary partnership will make to NFL players, the community, and the knowledge base of medicine.”
Said Pascual-Leone, “The health issues that confront NFL players are alarming. When needed, we will reach out across the country and internationally to find the required expertise. For example, Herman Taylor, from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who built and runs the unique Jackson Heart Study, makes us an even stronger team.”
Experts from a wide variety of fields — including epidemiology, genetics, metabolomics, lipidomics, cell biology, neurobiology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience, imaging, and computational biology — will participate in this program.
“We will immediately launch a number of innovative clinical trials to test new interventions for treating major health problems of NFL players,” said Meehan.
These will include a method for regrowing anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tissue; advanced imaging techniques to measure and assess heart function; and new approaches to directly treating concussion injuries.
The idea is to yield results within the first few years.
“Researchers will be challenged to discover new risk factors, identify novel preventative measures, and develop innovative therapies,” Harvard’s press release said. “The key to the success of this initiative will be the partnerships among researchers, NFL players, and players’ families.”
Researchers will go on “listening tours” to get firsthand knowledge of players’ lives and experiences. Members of the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School will help address ethical, legal, and policy issues relevant to players.
“In the United States, millions of kids and college athletes play football, formally and informally,” Flier said. “We cannot afford to ignore the health risks associated with this sport. This partnership between the NFLPA, Harvard’s Schools, and its prestigious hospitals represents an extraordinary opportunity to improve the health of NFL players and benefit generations to come.”