Former NFL players hope Harvard study can provide answers to health issues
March 28, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers linebacker Chad Brown rolls away from Colts QB Jim Harbaugh after one of Brown's three sacks Dec. 29, 1996, at Three Rivers Stadium.
Dave Martin/Associated Press
The Falcons' Eugene Robinson stretches before the start of Super Bowl XXXIII on Jan. 31, 1999, in Miami.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eugene Robinson played 16 seasons in the NFL, all before player safety became such a hot-button issue. During his career he subjected himself to countless blows to his head and other parts of his body. The cumulative effects of those hits remain with him today.
Robinson, 52, has been diagnosed with memory loss and has chronic knee pain. At home, before he was diagnosed, he had arguments with his wife over his forgetfulness. At work, as a radio and television personality, Robinson must now write out talking points to stimulate his memory before going on the air.
“I used to have a really sharp memory,” said Robinson, who played safety for the Seahawks, Packers, Falcons and Panthers from 1985-2000. “I could get things done and do them quick. That’s what I did on the field for years. Now, I have to leave my email open or have someone send me a text so I can see it, so I know what I need to do. I never used to have to do that before.”
A Harvard study that is using some of the newest smartphone technology is aiming to help former players such as Robinson who are having health issues after they retire from the NFL.
TeamStudy is an app that tracks the cognitive function, heart health and pain and mobility of former NFL players. The app was launched last week and is designed to help former players and the general public better understand the issues football players experience in retirement.
Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the principal investigator of TeamStudy and a professor of neurology at Harvard, said participation in the study takes on average 20 minutes per week. What makes this study unique is researchers can track the movement of former players as they perform tasks and record the data through the smartphone app.
Non-football players from the general public are included in the study. The large control group should allow researchers to determine which issues former players experience as a direct result of football and which are simply a matter of growing old with the rest of the population.
All former NFL players from 1960 to present day are welcome to be a part of the study. Pascual-Leone said the goal is for 10,000-15,000 people to be included in the study, which was commissioned by the NFL players’ association.
“The app was born out of a belief you can capture more data in day-to-day life,” Pascual-Leone said. “The technology allows us to do that and give back the insight to the players. We think the app will help us reach more people in an easier way.”
Subjects are asked to perform a daily task or exercise and respond to questions from researchers. For example, a subject is asked to walk in a straight line for 60 seconds. After that task is completed they’re asked to walk the same straight line for 60 seconds while counting backward in multiples of three.
“They want to see how much longer it takes you to walk that same distance when you’re concentrating on another task,” Robinson said.
In that example, researchers can measure the stride of subjects, distance covered and the time it took to complete the exercise. The data is collected and the former NFL players receive feedback.
The holistic approach is an integral aspect of the study and something in which Pascual-Leone and the membership of the NFLPA strongly believe.
“From a former player perspective there have been studies done, but they’ve been limited,” said former Steelers linebacker Chad Brown, who played 15 years in the NFL. “There have been questionnaires in the past. This is a whole body health kind of thing and we get the feedback.”
Ongoing studies into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease found prevalent in deceased football players, and the NFL’s handling of head injuries continue to dominate headlines. The New York Times published an investigative report Thursday that found the league’s concussion research was flawed and found ties between the league and Big Tobacco. Earlier in the week, Yahoo published a report that questioned whether playing football and developing CTE are directly related.
Sifting through the different views can cause conflicting viewpoints for many former players. Eight years after he retired, Brown, 45, doesn’t have any health problems, but he does have a strong desire to help out other former players who are struggling. He would, however, like to do it without bashing the sport he loves.
“I walked away pretty healthy,” Brown said. “Not everyone has that same story. Part of the NFL is you’re in this fraternity and brotherhood. If I can help my brothers out, I want to do that. Injuries and concussions are a huge part of the public discussion in the NFL. But moms are afraid to let their sons play because of what happens at the highest level of the game. I think there is something like 4 million youth football players. I would hate for that many kids to miss out because some people who played the game at the very highest level of the game have some troubles. What that young player will walk away with are lessons of toughness and sacrifice and teamwork. I want all these young boys to be allowed to play this game for lessons they learn. Everyone I know who played football carries those lessons with them.
“Can the NFL do a better job? Sure. Can the equipment be better? Sure. Can they tweak rules to make it safer? Sure. I’m not an old-school guy who says the game is soft especially as we begin to learn more information about CTE or this study, in particular. But I love football, and I would hate for those 4 million players not to have access to those lessons.”
Robinson remains involved in the game at different levels. He is a coach at Charlotte Christian High School in Charlotte, N.C., and he serves as the radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers. He believes the research will provide answers and potentially solutions to the problems NFL alumni experience after they walk away from the game.
“This is all about how can we help former players,” Robinson said. “When we went on strike in 1987 we were striking for posterity. This is all about how can we move the needle forward. If Harvard can find out what’s going on, I’ll be a mouthpiece and dispel notions that people are out to get you because former players do think that. This is one of the best things that happened to former players. We have scientists and doctors tallying the data, working on therapies so former players can navigate the waters of life after football.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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