Harvard and the NFL

A high-profile influx of cash gets the school motivated to create a team to help players

In a well-timed decision just days before the Superbowl, the NFL Players Union has announced that it awarded Harvard University $100 million to establish a 10-year “accelerated research initiative” to help better understand brain injuries and treat the wide-ranging health problems its players experience. This is a bit of a coup for the school, as they beat out Boston University, which is known for its outstanding work investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., and was also in the running (B.U. has received a $1 million grant from the NFL). It's a move made in the hopes of keeping the NFL—a multi-billion dollar industry built on gradual deterioration of its most valuable workers—a viable entity, and will likely be part of the story line we'll be hearing all weekend.

The decision on the part of the players to create this fund is an interesting one. According to the Globe, the union, frustrated by the lack of interest on the part of the league, decided to dedicate a portion of their salary in their 2011 collective bargaining agreement to the creation of the program and plans to provide the school with $11 million a year. Harvard, for its part, has committed an expansive, aggressive team of researchers culled from 10 schools, 16 medical centers, and about 20 national research centers that focus on minority health issues. “In order to make real breakthroughs in the complexity of today’s medicine, you need to create teams,” Dr. Lee Nadler, the director of the football project told the Globe. “We have created teams and that’s not natural at Harvard.”

The Harvard Gazette has the breakdown of the full scope of the “teams” assembled:

In order to ensure a thorough assessment, experts from a range of fields — including epidemiology, genetics, metabolomics, lipidomics, cell biology, neurobiology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience, imaging, and computational biology — will participate in this program. 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. An effort of this magnitude is critical to developing novel tests that can detect the earliest signs of problems in active players, and to investigating interventions to prevent them.

All of this, of course, is wonderful to hear. NFL players on average have a lifespan that's 20 years shorter than the average American male, and the science of C.T.E. still has a long way to go before we fully comprehend its devastating effects. But it's frustrating that it took the funding from the NFL Players Union to create such a across-the-board effort on the part of Harvard's research professionals, considered such a radical, unprecedented collaboration. That's particularly in light of fact that the union's health problems are born of privilege. As President Obama pointed out yesterday in his interview with the New Republic, these men are aware of the risks they're taking on the field: “They can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies.” Many deserving populations–from combat veterans to cancer patients–don't have the cash or the star-power to muster up this type of teamwork. It'd be great to see the school go on offense for them as well.