For years, pro football players and their families have been trying to warn us about the devastating effects of suffering repeated concussions. They’ve reported memory problems, outbursts of aggression, even suicidal and homicidal tendencies.
Only recently have the rest of us started to listen, as black and white data begins to paint a clearer picture of the concussion crisis in football.
In April, a federal judge gave final approval to a class-action lawsuit settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players who accused the NFL of hiding the dangers of concussions.
No doubt at least in part because of the flood of criticism the NFL received over its handling of the issue, the league in February announced it was appointing its first chief health and medical adviser. Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School, is tasked with overseeing the league’s medical strategy in advancing player safety.
Nabel’s credentials are impeccable.
For years, she served as director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, under the prevue of the National Institutes of Health. During her tenure, she played an integral role in launching the Heart Truth campaign, perhaps better known as the “red dress” campaign. The initiative, which remains one of the country’s most visible health awareness programs, aims to educate women about heart disease and to encourage them to take action to improve their heart health.
But Nabel is a cardiologist, not a neurologist, neurosurgeon or even a neuroscientist. That has led many to wonder: Even though her career accomplishments are impressive by just about anyone’s standards, is she the right person for this particular job?
“I’ve had a lifelong interest in health and wellness … and also I’m someone who loves sports,” Nabel told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta in her first sit-down interview in her new role. “I believe in the power of physical activity, and joining the NFL as a strategic adviser was just one opportunity — or one avenue — for me to really apply those interests in health and wellness … to professional sports.”
‘The NFL has a responsibility’
The following is a condensed version of Gupta and Nabel’s conversation at The Brigham Hospital in Boston on July 16:
Gupta: A lot of people will be on your team, but did you think it was important to have a head or neck or spine person in this job?
Nabel: The commissioner was interested in having someone to stand back and look at the health and safety issues broadly, so that certainly includes head, neck and spine. That includes medical and cardiovascular, youth football, advisory committees, etc.
So I think the commissioner was interested in someone that had a firm understanding of medical research and sees the full spectrum of medical care on a day-to-day basis.
Gupta: Do you have specific goals outlined for yourself? You’ve been in the job for about six months. What do you think the next six months are going to look like?
Nabel: I joined the league in February and spent the first three months learning. After the first 100 days, I gave three recommendations to the commissioner, and those recommendations were to continue to fund medical research, looking particularly at the acute and chronic effects of brain injuries.
The second recommendation was to better understand the mental health issues in current and former players and understand how that relates to physical health.
And third, communication. I’m a sports fan. I’m a mom. I had no idea what was going on within the NFL and the tremendous work that’s going on for the past four to five years. My other recommendation to the commissioner was to get out there and tell that story, so the public has a much better understanding of what the league is doing to improve health and make the game safer.
Gupta: When you look at this position, a few years down the road, do you think the impact of your job — what you do here — is going to be purely with the NFL, or is it going to be with other parts of our society, too?
Nabel: Because of the prominent role that the NFL has in our society, I think that the NFL has a responsibility — one could say an obligation — to really focus on player health and game safety. And by doing so, it would have a watershed effect on football, reaching into the NCAA and down into youth football. But I think the watershed effect extends to all sports and will affect men and women, so I think that’s a good thing.
Gupta: For parents who may be saying, “I’m not sure if I should let my kids play football. I’m not sure how safe it is. I’m hearing a lot of bad things.” Is Dr. Nabel going to reassure me? What is your position, and how safe is the game of football, as things stand now?
Nabel: I’m going to say, Dr. Nabel is going to focus on improving the health of the players and making the game as safe as possible. Dr. Nabel is going to focus on understanding what are the benefits and what are the risks and what are the questions that you as a parent should ask.
I’m a mom and have a son who played eighth-grade football. If I had young children today, I would be asking: Is the team that my son is going to play on connected to USA Football? Is there a certified athletic trainer on the sideline? Have the coaches, parents, the players and the trainer been educated around sports injury — particularly head injury and concussion? What does my pediatrician think?
I would ask those series of questions, then weigh the pros and cons and make a judgment accordingly.
Gupta: If you have those precautions in place — a trainer on the field, specific education for the trainers and coaches — all that’s in place. Do you think it’s OK to play football then?
Nabel: I’ll tell you what. Any contact sport is going to have a risk of injury. We see that, for example, in women’s soccer.
I think what’s critical is knowing how to play the game right, knowing how to play the game safely. If you understand the best way to tackle, if you’ve got good equipment in place and you know how to recognize injuries, then you’re going to know how to play the game as safely as possible. And if you’re really driven to play the game, then I would feel comfortable.
‘My eyes are always out there’
Nabel says she already attends “a lot” of games and will continue to do so.
“I might have watched the game from purely an entertainment perspective in the past, but now I clearly watch the game from a safety perspective,” she said. “My eyes are always out there watching the players, looking for potentially harm or injuries.”
When asked to choose her favorite team, Nabel didn’t hesitate in naming the New England Patriots. After all, she does live and work in Boston.