TORONTO – The union representing National Football League players is giving Harvard University $100 million to study health problems current and retired athletes face.
That funding will span a decade as Harvard Medical School researchers examine a number of health concerns football players are at risk of, from head trauma, heart problems, diabetes and mental health issues.
The medical school says it hopes to uncover ways to prevent these injuries and illnesses and to figure out new approaches to diagnosing and treating those who get hurt on the field.
“Our goal is to transform the health of these athletes,” Lee Nadler, the school’s dean for clinical research, said.
“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.’”
Jason Witten, a tight end with the Dallas Cowboys, told CNN that the safety of the sport is the top priority for athletes.
“Every player understands the risks associated with playing football,” he said in a statement.
“What we’re trying to do as players through this research is to find ways to lead healthier lives. It’s the most important thing we can do off the field.”
The NFLPA is also enlisting the help of 1,000 retired professional football players. The researchers will identify 100 healthy and 100 unhealthy players and create what they describe as a “biological profile of illness.”
NFL players encounter a string of health issues by the end of their careers – their joints need replacing, they deal with chronic pain, arthritis and heart problems. Other more severe concerns – dementia and concussions – will also be investigated.
“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,” the university said in a statement.
What sets this apart from previous research is the scope of the study and that this time around, players are being examined while they’re still playing and when they’ve retired.
“There have been postmortem studies looking at the brains of previous players but not the players today,” Dr. Lee Nadler, who is co-directing the proposed study, said.
The school is pulling in expertise from a variety of backgrounds – scientists in fields such as epidemiology, genetics, neurobiology and regenerative medicine have all been tapped for their input.
NFL athletes’ injuries and their long-term consequences have been in the spotlight in recent years.
About 4,000 NFL players and their families are suing the league, alleging the league failed to protect players from the long-term effects of concussions.
Last week, Junior Seau’s family added to the group, suing the NFL and alleging the former linebacker’s suicide was the result of a brain disease caused by violent hits to the head.
Seau was 43 when he shot himself last May. Based on post-mortem tests, he was diagnosed with CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The brain condition has been linked to others players’ deaths in the past, in hockey and in football.
The proposed research project will be announced Thursday at the NFLPA annual Super Bowl press conference.