All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.
Yesterday the NFL and the NFL Players Association reached a settlement concerning compensation for concussions and other football-related injuries. The impending lawsuit was brought by former NFL players who claimed, among other things, that the NFL downplayed the risk of concussions despite having knowledge of their effects and also did not do all it could to help former players.
The total amount earmarked for the settlement is reported to be $765 million dollars, with the vast majority ($675 million) in a fund to support former players and families in dealing with the aftermath of concussions. Commentators have noted that this appears to be a great victory for the NFL. First, the amount of money is less than many expected even with a settlement. Second, the NFL did not have to go through discovery, which would have laid open exactly what the NFL did know about concussions and possible side effects, as well as potentially other damaging information that, once released in court, could never be private again.
It seems likely that those who were bringing forward the suit settled because they were motivated to help the most needy members of their group. Many former NFL players are suffering dementia and lingering aftereffects from their playing days. Some families of deceased players will also benefit. The former player pool can’t really afford to wait for the long protracted time a trial and subsequent appeals would take since in the interim many would fall into poverty and even poorer health; some could also die.
While this seems quite cynical on the part of the NFL, they are a business, so it’s hard to blame them. But if they want to try to burnish their image, they have a great opportunity. In addition to immediate benefits to former players, the settlement also sets aside $75 million for baseline medical exams and $10 million for research and education. This could be a token effort, collecting a bunch of yearly CT scans that get filed on the cloud and never looked at again. Or, this could be a well coordinated, collaborative effort between the NFL, the Players Association, and researchers using tools in digital health, patient reported outcomes, quantification, and monitoring that would not just monitor the players on an ongoing basis for the next ten years (the time period described in the settlement), but also fundamentally advance our understanding of brain function, aging and sports.
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, professional sports have a great opportunity to take advantage of advances in health and wellness monitoring. The NFL is already going to spend $75 million on baseline medical scans. They could put out Requests for Proposals to academics for research programs to take this information and try to figure out key questions of interest to the NFL. What are early signs of trauma? Do genetics play a role in susceptibility to brain injuries? What measures seem most protective against concussions? Once a data resource is created, it can only help to have many more eyes on it, examining it in a variety of ways. Funding for these studies would come out of the $10 million research fund.
These efforts also don’t have to be capped at $10 million. Yes, that’s the amount in the settlement, and yes, that’s described as a “cap.” But the NFL had revenues of $9.5 BILLION in 2011-2012. Even doubling the amount spent on research and education would be barely more than 0.2% of that revenue. However, a dribble in the bucket for the NFL is a firehose of funding for academic labs. It’s become clear that with the sequester, funding for academic research is getting harder to come by. In that sense the NFL would be in a prime position to lure top research talent to tackle their problems in preventing and understanding brain injuries.
Now imagine that brain scan data coupled with other kinds of tools that monitor behavior and mental health. I’m thinking of tools like Ginger.io and Emotion Sense. It seems to me that integrating tools like this into any program of monitoring makes sense, since the point is to understand how concussions and other injuries affect how players are able to think, how they feel, how they behave.
Thinking outside the box even more, an NFL team could view this as an opportunity to learn, not just about brain function, but about all aspects of their players’ health. I described how the Quantified Self approach would be beneficial for Major League Baseball, but there’s no reason this wouldn’t also benefit the NFL. I’d love to see the San Francisco 49ers approach Stanford University’s Michael Snyder, who has been pioneering personal health monitoring for years, using himself as a guinea pig.
Doing these things, advertising their efforts and reporting the outcomes would strengthen the NFL’s image as a forward-thinking organization that honestly cares about player welfare. It remains to be seen, however, if the results of this settlement are the first steps towards a more comprehensive picture of player health…or just a way to make an annoying problem go away.