Harvard Report: NFL Doctors Face ‘Inherent Conflict of Interest’

The researchers offered 76 recommendations for improving football players' health.

Jerod Mayo

Photo via AP

A new Harvard report offers a slew of recommendations that could shake up medical care in the NFL. Chief among them? Disentangling medical professionals from the “inherent conflict of interest” that comes from serving both players and organizations.

The 493-page document, the result of Harvard’s Football Players Health Study and authored by experts from the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, provides an in-depth analysis of health in the NFL, and what the league, doctors, players, and other stakeholders can do to improve it. The report comes amidst ongoing controversy about how concussions are handled by the league, and as more and more former players are posthumously diagnosed with CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with head trauma.

The Harvard report takes issue with doctors serving both players and teams. NFL doctors diagnose, examine, and treat players, but are also responsible for clearing athletes for game play—a duality that the Harvard authors say is problematic.

“The intersection of club doctors’ dual obligations creates significant legal and ethical quandaries that can threaten player health,” the report reads. “There are several areas where [players’ and teams’] interests may diverge, such as when a player feels compelled to return to play from an injury more quickly than is recommended in order to try and help the club win or, if he does not, potentially have his contract terminated.”

A better solution, the authors write, would be routing all player care through one neutrally appointed doctor, and keeping another doctor on staff to review reports and clear athletes for games.

The NFL responded with a 33-page rebuttal. In it, NFL Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller writes that Harvard’s report “cites no evidence that a conflict of interest actually exists,” and that its recommendations are “untenable and impractical.”

Other key Harvard recommendations—there are 76 in all—include removing player health from collective bargaining; placing concussed players on a short-term injury reserve list, separate from the 53-player roster; improving and enforcing codes of ethics; bolstering studies about football’s effects on health; supporting players who wish to seek a second medical opinion; and encouraging players to get annual post-season physicals.

“The issues and parties involved are numerous, complex, and interconnected,” the researchers write. “To address these issues—and ultimately, to protect and improve the health of NFL players—requires a diligent and comprehensive approach to create well-informed and meaningful recommendations for change.”

You can read the full report here.