Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A bruised Georgia Peach: the legal and ethical concerns surrounding football players' health

The Huskies are going to the Peach Bowl!  As a long time sports fan, I find this a very exciting time to be in the Seattle area.  Football to me is family, either bundled up and braving the cold to witness a game in person or gathered around the television, enjoying warm chili from the comforts of home.

But recent revelations in the medical community regarding players' health and well-being have raised ethical and legal considerations around the sport I love.  You may have seen the Will Smith driven biopic Concussion  this time last year, or noticed the Congressional hearings held this past March.

Football players' health has been a hot topic for the past ten years, but a recent study released by Harvard University investigates not just concussions, but other conditions affecting players and their well-being, such as musculoskeletal pain and psychological issues.  They were "interested in the whole player, over his whole life."  The study also considers the legal and ethical conflicts faced by major stakeholders, such a team physicians and the players themselves.  The major issue is whether the current model is successfully balancing the economic interests of all stakeholders with a primary interest in player health and well-being.

The current model, where team physicians examine and treat players but are hired, fired and paid by a NFL club, is fraught with ethical concerns and potential conflicts of interest.  UW Law's Prof Steve Calandrillo wrote an article discussing the legal and ethical conflicts for team physicians in 2005.  Although this isn't a new idea, the Harvard study confirms this as a continuing issue.  However, the NFL denies any conflict of interest issues exist.

Although the NFL denies any conflict of interest issues exist, they have acknowledged the tie between football and traumatic brain injuries.  In 2015, the NFL and a class of more than 5,000 former players reached a $1 billion settlement.  However, two suits, Armstrong v. National Football League and Gilchrist v. National Football League, challenging this settlement on due process claims were brought.  The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the settlement and on December 12, the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

A recent article responding to the release of the Harvard study offers quotes from both Prof Calandrillo and Tom Talavage, a neurotrauma researcher at Purdue University on the issue of conflict of interests within the NFL.  Talavage discussed a similar conflict at the collegiate level.  He suggested moving the athletic trainers from the athletic department to the academic department to avoid any possible conflicts.  This change will allow athletic trainers to keep a player out of a game out of concern for concussion related symptoms without fear of firing for doing so.

Keeping players out of play over concussion concerns begins at the youth level.  In 2009, the Washington legislature passed the Zachary Lystedt law.  Named for a young man who collapsed after returning to play while exhibiting symptoms of concussion, the law was one of the first passed to protect youth players from continued play after suffering head injuries.  Now all 50 states have some type of legislation for the protection of youth players.  University of Colorado at Denver complied this survey that outlines legislation for each state.

Despite the risks of injury to the players, the football business is thriving.  Last year, revenues for the NFL were an estimated $12 billion.  At the collegiate level, financial success is varied.  Texas A&M leads the pack with an estimated $83 million in net profit.  UW has reported a loss for the last two years, despite bringing in $109.7 million in revenue in 2015.  The athletic director attributed some of that loss to declining ticket sales for the past two years.  Hopefully, the 2016-2017 season will turn that tide.

Which leads us back to the Peach Bowl.  The Huskies will be featured on a national stage against a longtime media favorite, the Alabama Crimson tide, for a spot in the CFP National Championship game.  The team needs our support, so let's get out the pride this December!  I know I'll be in front of the television with my Alabama alum dad as we cheer on our respective schools, because football is family to me and a lot of people.  This emotional attachment is what makes any discussion about player safety a balancing act: of course we want the players protected, but we don't want to lose an institution we grew up with.  The debate and the research continues, but in the meantime GO DAWGS!

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