NFL Players Association Gives Harvard $100 Million Grant To Study Player Health

UPDATED: January 30, 2013, at 2:30 a.m.

The National Football League Players Association has issued Harvard Medical School a $100 million grant to establish a 10-year research initiative aimed at finding solutions to players’ health problems.

“We are excited about the contributions this extraordinary partnership will make to NFL players, the community, and the knowledge base of medicine,” Ross D. Zafonte, head of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Medical School, said in a statement.

Zafonte and Lee M. Nadler, dean for clinical and translational research at the Medical School, will lead the initiative, entitled Harvard Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members.

More than one dozen lawsuits have been filed by former NFL players against the league, claiming that the NFL withheld information about the potential negative health consequences of playing in the league.

These lawsuits—in addition to the multiple widely publicized suicides of former and active NFL players—have drawn unprecedented public attention to the possible long-term health repercussions of playing in the NFL. These can include brain damage, heart problems, and diabetes, according to the program’s overview.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of neurology and associate director of the initiative, said that NFL players face physical and public stresses that call for focused research on their health.

“At the end of the day, you have unique individuals going through a very unique life,” he said.

Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier said in a statement that the expansive program announced Tuesday will enlist a variety of doctors and scientists from the Medical School, Harvard-affiliated hospitals, and other schools across the University.

“We are committed to going beyond our walls,” he said. “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.”

Central to the initiative is a study of 1,000 retired football players that will produce a “biological profile of illness” for each player. Scientists will use the results of that unprecedented project to design methods to prevent and diagnose health problems. The researchers will also seek to design new methods of treating concussion-related brain damage, develop a technique to regrow ACL tissue, and produce more comprehensive images of heart function.

According to William P. Meehan ’58, director of the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention and associate director of the initiative, some parts of the project are ready to be launched immediately while others will require more development before being implemented.

“This is a long-term commitment,” he said. “A gargantuan task.”

—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at nkansra01@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at sweinstock@college.harvard.edu.

The Crimson's Twitter and Facebook accounts have been updated to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Jan. 29

Due to an editing error, posts circulating this article on Twitter and Facebook incorrectly identified the organization that has funded a Harvard study on players' health. It is the NFL Players Association, not the NFL.

Tags