NFL Players Association Will Independently Fund Medical School Research Initiative

A ten-year Harvard Medical School initiative aimed at researching the health problems associated with playing football will be funded solely by the National Football League Players Association, not the National Football League, a spokesperson for the NFLPA confirmed Thursday.

A collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 by the NFL and the NFLPA outlined goals to collectively fund a medical research initiative and earmarked a “joint contribution amount” of $11 million annually from both organizations. According to the Boston Globe, after a competitive application process, the NFLPA selected the Medical School as the base of the jointly funded research initiative.

In January 2013, the Medical School announced that the NFLPA had issued a $100 million grant for the unprecedented research endeavor, which would involve several research facilities affiliated with the Medical School and a study of more than 1,000 retired football players regarding concussions, musculoskeletal trauma, and high-impact activity on player health.

However, though the collective bargaining agreement indicated that both the NFL and the NFLPA would contribute to the research initiative, George Atallah, a spokesperson from the NFLPA, told sports news outlet ESPN that “the landscape [of the initiative] has changed slightly.”

According to the ESPN article, Atallah said that the NFL will not be providing funds for the Medical School study. When contacted by The Crimson, another NFLPA spokesperson confirmed Atallah’s statement, adding that “at this moment, [the NFL has] not contributed to the program.” Furthermore, the link to the website of the initiative, coined “Harvard Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members,” which appeared in the original 2013 press release, is now broken.

When asked for a comment on the situation, an NFL spokesperson did not directly address the NFLPA’s claims, writing in an email that “the NFL’s grants to a variety of initiatives will help accelerate the medical community’s pursuit of pioneering research to enhance the health of athletes past, present, and future.”

Researchers involved with the initiative referred The Crimson to Medical School communications director David Cameron, who did not comment directly on the situation but pointed toward a recent program overview issued in Feb. 2014 regarding the initiative.

The overview did not mention a specific dollar amount of the grant or the NFL’s involvement in the grant. However, the overview did offer a timeline and state that “the first statements of work have been launched,” with the condition that the researchers would have to “achieve clear benchmarks” to secure continued funding. It is unclear whether or not researchers knew about the stipulations attached to the funding when the grant was first announced.

Currently, the NFL is in the process of channeling more than $30 million to the National Institutes of Health, as well as financing a separate initiative through General Electric. Commentators cited in the ESPN article are now characterizing the NFLPA’s 2013 announcement of the $100 million grant to the Medical School as a public relations stunt, designed to publicly pressure the NFL into funding the initiative.

Academics acknowledge that the NFL is likely to choose the studies they fund with care. Professor Stephen A. Greyser, a senior marketing professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in sports management said, “I can only speculate as to their thinking, but if I were in an analogous situation, what I would probably say to myself is if I participate in a particular study, to what degree am I bound to accept the results?”

Amid changing circumstances, the NFLPA spokesperson said that the union is “happy that the research is moving forward.”

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