NFL Gives Harvard Medical School $100 Million Research Grant

Harvard will create an initiative aimed at researching, diagnosing, and treating NFL players' injuries.

Sports injurySports injury photo via Shutterstock

Harvard Medical School reported today that the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has given the school a $100 million grant to put toward an initiative focusing on preventing, treating, and understanding injuries and illnesses that frequently plague professional football players. The initiative, called the Harvard Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members, will use an interdisciplinary approach to research common ailments like head trauma, heart disease, skeletal damage, diabetes, and physiological stress. The report quotes Jeffrey S. Flier, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University, as saying:

“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. 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.”

The article states that one of the initiative’s first steps will be partnering with at least 1,000 retired NFL athletes with the goal of identifying 100 healthy and 100 unhealthy individuals. From there, researchers will complete a series of tests and studies to create a “biological profile of illness” to better understand the issues at hand and develop strategies for moving forward. Such research will then be used to develop new methods for things like healing ACL tissue, advancing heart imaging technology, and treating concussions and head injuries.

Harvard will pull in researchers from areas as widespread as epidemiology, genetics, metabolomics, lipidomics, cell biology, neurobiology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience, imaging, and computational biology to better understand the NFLPA members. In the report, Lee Nadler, program director and Harvard Medical School dean of clinical and translational research, explains that the program’s success will hinge on understanding all aspects of the athletes:

“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. We refer to this comprehensive approach as the ‘Integrated NFL Player.’”

It is this multi-facted approach that sets Harvard’s program apart from others in the field, like Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), which has also been praised by the NFL. BU’s program was founded in 2008 as a joint venture between the BU School of Medicine and the Sports Legacy Institute and is dedicated solely to studying Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that many NFL players—like the late Junior Seau, who we reported on earlier this month—suffer from.

Despite the prestige that comes with having two major research programs in Boston, all the recent publicity surrounding football injuries does make us wonder if the sport as a whole, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, should be under more scrutiny. Harvard’s Dean Flier addresses that concern in the report:

“In the United States, millions of kids and college athletes play football, formally and informally,” said Dean Flier. “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.”