NEW ORLEANS — Although it is still easy to find players who say they know and accept the potential health risks of playing football, recent remarks by President Obama to The New Republic have brought a bigger spotlight to the problems.
But long before Obama said that if he had a son he might not let him play football, the NFL Players Association began recognizing they had to look into what the game was doing to their bodies and minds.
On Tuesday, the Globe reported a landmark partnership between the NFLPA and Harvard University for a research initiative that will take a detailed look at health issues by using 1,000 retired players of differing ages and races to try to paint a better picture of football’s long-term effects.
The research will be funded entirely by the NFLPA, $11 million per year over the 10-year course of the current collective bargaining agreement, which players have essentially taken out of their salaries.
“To me, the most telling and compelling part of this research commitment is that the players made it themselves; all of the funding for the research comes from the players’ portion of league revenues,” said George Atallah, the union’s assistant executive director of external affairs. “Players made that decision during the negotiations, while they were locked out [in 2011], that they were still going to set aside money to help understand how to improve their future health.
“To me, that is a sign of not just the awareness of today’s NFL player, but the responsibility they have over the care of the game and the care of themselves.”
Harvard researchers have determined that professional football players in the United States and Canada “appear to have life expectancies in the mid-to-late 50s.” Atallah said the Players Association has not done recent life-expectancy studies of its own.
“But I do know that from the research we have done, NFL players are at a greater risk for long-term health problems, and that’s one of the things that this research aims to tackle,” he said. “It’s a comprehensive look at the overall health of players, where head trauma and brain trauma and the impact on the brain is one of the areas we cover, but we also cover chronic pain, mental illnesses, and a score of other health issues that they face.”
Not just the physical health but the mental health of players has become a greater concern as the effects of multiple concussions have come to light after years of the NFL downplaying the potentially fatal consequences.
Hundreds of former players are suing the league, charging that the NFL did not do enough to inform them of the dangers of concussions.
On Tuesday, 49ers safety Donte Whitner noted that the NFL players who have committed suicide in recent years have been defensive players, and that is a concern for him.
Over the past two-plus years, there are at least six known suicides: Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Kurt Crain, O.J. Murdock, Junior Seau, and Jovan Belcher. All but one — Murdock — were defensive players.
Whether there is a definitive link between defensive players suffering chronic traumatic encepholpathy (CTE), the degenerative disease found in the brains of many football players after death, at a higher rate is just one of the many things that will be studied.
Seau’s death last May hit home with many current players because he was a contemporary and a player many of them looked up to when they were younger.
“Let’s be honest — Hall of Fame player, a lot of people can connect with him,” Atallah said. “[But] his passing is no less or no more tragic than Dave Duerson’s passing, who was on our pension board and was a union officer for many years.
“It needs to end. I don’t think you can point to one specific incident to say it spurred this type of action. I believe that our players understood that they needed to take action well before any of these unfortunate incidents happened.”
Once the decision had been made to begin a research project, the Players Association put out a request for proposal to over 20 medical research institutions around the country. From there, players, NFLPA staff, and outside medical consultants narrowed that list until Harvard was chosen.
Not only did Harvard provide the most compelling and proactive response in its proposal, Atallah said the school also offered to cover many of the administrative costs, meaning the bulk of the $100 million will go directly toward research.
One prominent player that agreed with the president is Ravens safety Ed Reed, no stranger to big hits and big fines for those hits.
‘‘I am with Obama,’’ Reed said. ‘‘I have a son. I am not forcing football on my son.’’
Reed believes football’s medical system needs an overhaul.
‘‘We’ve got some leaks in it that need to be worked out,’’ he said. ‘‘Every medical training room should be upgraded; training rooms can be a lot better.
‘‘When you’ve got the president talking about it, you got something.’’