Har­vard study sug­gests some NFL health and safety changes

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - RICK MAESE The Wash­ing­ton Post

The phys­i­cal de­mands are dif­fer­ent. The types and sever­ity of in­juries are dif­fer­ent. And the eco­nom­ics can vary wildly. But there are sev­eral com­mon threads shared by pro­fes­sional sports leagues when it comes to health and safety is­sues, and a new re­port from the Har­vard Law School sought to iden­tify, study and compare them.

The study, re­leased Mon­day by re­searchers at the Petrie-Flom Cen­ter, found that the NFL of­fers many health ben­e­fits su­pe­rior to other pro­fes­sional sports leagues but iden­ti­fied sev­eral ar­eas for im­prove­ment. They in­cluded im­prov­ing life in­surance of­fer­ings, ex­pand­ing its pen­sion ben­e­fit and amend­ing some of the rules that gov­ern in­her­ent and in­evitable in­juries, such as con­cus­sions.

The 255-page re­port is the largest and most thor­ough com­par­a­tive study of its kind, and re­searchers in­cluded in­for­ma­tion from six pro sports leagues — NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS and the Cana­dian Football League — and their re­spec­tive play­ers’ unions. Though funded by money set aside by the NFL and its play­ers union, it wasn’t sub­ject to ap­proval by any of the leagues.

“In terms of em­ployee ben­e­fits, we think the NFL ac­tu­ally of­fers many em­ployee ben­e­fits that For­tune 500 com­pa­nies and many good em­ploy­ers do not,” said Har­vard’s Glenn Co­hen, one of the study’s coau­thors.

While the re­port praised the league for some of the ben­e­fits it of­fers its cur­rent play­ers — such as the right to seek out a sec­ond opin­ion from doc­tors and play­ers’ abil­ity to choose their own sur­geons — it found some of the re­tire­ment ben­e­fits to be lack­ing when com­pared with other leagues. The NFL’s re­tire­ment plan ben­e­fits are worse than those in MLB and the NBA and NHL, the re­port stated. For ex­am­ple, base­ball play­ers and hockey play­ers are vested in their pen­sions on the first day they ap­pear in a reg­u­lar sea­son game; the NFL re­quires play­ers ac­crue three years of ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore they’re el­i­gi­ble for re­tire­ment ben­e­fits, a high bar in a sport with short ca­reer spans.

“Given the short­ness of the NFL player’s ca­reer, that ac­tu­ally ends up ex­clud­ing a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple from the pen­sion plan,” Co­hen said.

MLB, the NBA and the NHL also of­fer some form of health in­surance for life for their re­tired play­ers. The NFL of­fers five years of cov­er­age and then CO­BRA (Con­sol­i­dated Om­nibus Bud­get Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act of 1985) cov­er­age. Co­hen says that bet­ter health cov­er­age post-ca­reer could be es­pe­cially im­por­tant right now as Congress con­sid­ers changes to health care law that could make it more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple with pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions to qual­ify for af­ford­able in­surance.

“Where play­ers have only played one or two sea­sons (and per­haps games), there might be ques­tions as to whether it is ap­pro­pri­ate to pro­vide life­time health in­surance to some­one who was em­ployed for such a short pe­riod of time,” states the re­port, which was co-writ­ten with Christo­pher Deu­bert and Holly Fer­nan­dez Lynch.

Among the re­port’s top rec­om­men­da­tions: treat a player re­cov­er­ing from a con­cus­sion dif­fer­ently than those who’ve suf­fered other in­juries. The re­port notes that MLB now of­fers a short-term seven-day dis­abled list for play­ers who’ve suf­fered a con­cus­sion. Not­ing that con­cus­sions are far more preva­lent in football, re­searchers rec­om­mended the NFL adopt a sim­i­lar pol­icy.

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