Yes, players get injured, but the scope of the problem is far from clear
May 10, 2015 12:00 AM
By Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Lee M. Nadler
Last weekend, more than 250 young men were drafted by the 32 NFL franchises around the country, advancing toward fulfilling their dream to play professional football. Hundreds more will be signed over coming weeks and months.
If one accepts widespread popular opinion, each of these young men will have a few exciting years playing the game they love, enjoy a glamorous lifestyle and amass some wealth, only to then struggle for decades with chronic illnesses and untreatable disabilities.
No one can deny that football carries risk of injury, both minor and severe, and that some former football players struggle with disabling conditions that impact them and their families. Does this mean that we should strike fear into the hearts of the young men being drafted and their families? Does this mean we should end America’s sport?
More than 20,000 men have been employed as professional players by NFL franchises since 1950. We do not know the proportion of these individuals who developed long-term problems that may cause premature disability or affect lifelong wellbeing. We do not know what factors exacerbate or mitigate an individual’s risk, including genetics, nutrition, lifestyle, as well as length of time and position played, and injuries sustained during playing years.
Nonetheless, each day we read another tragic front-page story. With increasing zeal, the media embraces these stories and elevates them to epidemic proportions. All too frequently, coverage of football-induced afflictions is given equal or even more prominence than significant world events.
Recently, several high-profile athletes and other well-known public figures, including President Barack Obama, have expressed concern that the risks associated with football may outweigh the benefits. And yet, much of the knowledge necessary to accurately determine this risk-to-benefit ratio is simply not yet available.
Public perception is being shaped by diverse parties with their own agendas and interests, the media are providing little or no filter to determine the validity of research findings, and overstated conclusions from small, underpowered studies often are immediately accepted as fact.
Each young man about to embark on a professional football career must weigh the benefits against the risks as he faces short-term gains and long-term uncertainty. As it stands today, each prospective player is required to make a complicated, life-changing decision with limited and sometimes unreliable information.
We are not saying that football is safe, nor arguing that we should just wait until further evidence is gathered and accept that some individuals may suffer in the meantime. Instead, we want to stress the urgent need for the scientifically sound, independent, unbiased data that athletes need to make informed decisions based on their individual circumstances, values and goals.
We need results fast in order to develop new diagnostic methods and treatments that will protect and improve the lives of former, current and future football players. When reliable and sufficient data are available, they need to be openly shared without any agendas, allowing scientific truths to guide further discussions.
Thanks to the willingness, effort and advice of former NFL players, the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University (footballplayershealth.harvard.edu) is committed to doing just this.
Alvaro Pascual-Leone is a professor of neurology and associate dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School, where Lee M. Nadler is Virginia and DK Ludwig Professor of Medicine and dean for clinical and translational research. Both are principal investigators for the Football Players Health Study.
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