Harvard's NFL Study Will Help Both Players and Fans

Researchers across disciplines will conduct a comprehensive, $100 million study to look at safety and health issues affecting professional football players.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 12: Julius Peppers #90 of the Chicago Bears rushes against Matt Light #72 of the New England Patriots at Soldier Field on December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated the Bears 36-7.

Harvard University isn't the first institute of higher learning that comes to mind when mentioning professional football. The school's own football team is typically unremarkable and non-newsworthy (except for its yearly rival match against Yale). Harvard has produced only one NFL quarterback (The Buffalo Bills' Ryan Fitzpatrick), and the Crimson is not considered a farm team for the pros. Academics and research are Harvard's strong suits.

And now, Harvard will use its talents to aid the NFL in a way no star linebacker ever could. Researchers across disciplines will conduct a comprehensive, $100 million study to look at safety and health issues affecting professional football players. And it's not just the concussions, brain injuries, and tragic suicides that have brought player safety to the forefront of late (and led President Obama to observe that he might not have allowed a son to play football, if he'd had one). The study, according to a report in the Harvard Gazette, will look at a whole range of player health and safety matters, including skeletal and muscle injuries, psychological stress, and diabetes. Lee Nadler, Harvard Medical School's dean for clinical and translational research, Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told the Gazette:

Our goal is to transform the health of these athletes. In order to extend the life expectancy and quality of life of NFLPA members, 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.' Harvard Catalyst [which will direct the program] will convene and connect investigators from all disciplines, in all departments, across all of Harvard's component Schools and affiliated hospitals, to work as a single team.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

This isn't an antifootball campaign, or a run-up to a plan to ban the popular sport. It's a way to figure out how to prevent and repair injuries that increasingly plague professional players, sometimes very tragically. We can enjoy football without watching players get so badly hit that they are damaged for life. The NFL doesn't have the proudest record on preventing player injuries. It recently reinstated New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton after just a season's suspension despite Payton's involvement in the scandal to give cash bounties to players who injured opponents on the field. But the Harvard research—aside from helping the players themselves—might help both the league and fans to accept rules that protect the athletes.

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