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Director's Blog: Bad week in sports medicine

Director's Blog: Bad week in sports medicine

Then there are the weeks in sports where you think: “How can this stuff really happen?  Are people really this maniacal and self-serving?”  Unfortunately, there are times when your naivety is stripped and it really appears that even decisions about appropriate health-care for athletes are decided by incompetent idiots on power trips.  Two extensive investigative reports this week dealing with the health of football athletes show convincingly that unfortunately, this incompetence, greed, and politics can and do dictate care for athletes. 

First, Sports Illustrated’s Senior Writer David Epstein (disclosure: Mr. Epstein has been a guest on the Huffines podcast several times and was one of our Huffines Discussion Scholars in 2012) caused Penn State University fans everywhere to send massive amounts of hate-email and hate-twitter before his story on the health care of Penn State’s football players was even published.  (By the way: that article came out on 5/16/13 in the Sports Illustrated magazine.  You should read it – now.)  Mr. Epstein’s report shows that Penn State – even in their new age of transparency – has made some less than appropriate decisions regarding their football players’ health care.  One egregious case in point: Penn State administration allowed the head football coach to determine the physicians that would provide care for the athletes.  I would guess that the determination of who should be the Team Physician is probably a bit out of his expertise.  And don’t even ask my opinion of why on earth a major University that is under so much scrutiny would turn over the Athletic Department to a former Board of Regent member who had no athletic administration experience, but WAS an orthopedic surgeon with a local private practice.  Financial conflict of interest and lack of experience are never good criteria upon which to hire a major administrator.  (Here’s a link to a summary of Mr. Epstein’s article and the controversy.)

Secondly, Patrick Hruby – a writer for Sports on Earth (SportsOnEarth.com) – has just published an extensive investigation of the primary individual (Dr. Elliot Pellman) who has been behind the long-term NFL stance that concussions were not a major issue in football.  Admittedly, my thoughts on the lawsuits that over 4,000 former NFL players have filed against the league regarding head injuries have been primarily along the lines of “you knew you were playing in a violent sport with injuries, why sue now?”  After reading Mr. Hruby’s report, my thoughts have changed 180° and now I’ll support those players.  There is little doubt that for almost 20 years, the NFL – and specifically the Pellman-led NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee – misled the public about the known dangers of concussions as well as developing return to play guidelines that were probably dangerous and hurtful to hundreds of players.  Pellman – who is actually a rheumatologist specializing in muscle and joint pain and not a neurologist – was the team doctor for the Jets for many years and the stories about his ‘care’ illustrated by Mr. Hruby are frankly frightening. (Here’s a link to Mr. Hruby’s article.)

As a former athlete, I have no problem if athletes willingly play a dangerous sport.  However, if a player is impaired, especially from a brain injury – and that’s what a concussion is after all – then the health care professionals charged with their care should step in and make the tough call, always keeping in mind the athlete’s long-term health.  Thankfully, there are literally thousands of competent and well-trained physicians, athletic trainers, and coaches that do work together to make decisions based on the athlete’s long-term well-being.  However, in the situations where incompetence, jealousy, politics, and greed enter into the care of an athlete, those systems are broken and must be fixed.  In the meantime, don’t shoot the messengers that happen to point out the problems.  In the two cases above, the messengers / reporters may actually be saving more lives by pointing out the problems than the health-care providers that are responsible for the athletes.

Let’s hope that next week in sports is better than this week was.

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