The National Football League’s first chief medical and health adviser said she “probably” would allow her 7-year-old son to play contact football, and that no information exists to support a minimum age for participation in the sport.
Elizabeth G. Nabel, a cardiologist and president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said her son played football as an eighth grader but wasn’t good enough to make the ninth-grade team. Asked if she would have allowed him to play at 7, Nabel said she probably would. If he got hurt, she would pull him out and reassess the situation, she said.
“If he had wanted to go on and play we would have allowed him to do that,” Nabel said in her first comments since assuming the advisory role with the NFL in February. “We need to understand more about the developing brain.”
Nabel said her motivation for taking the job was the ability to parlay the most-watched U.S. sports league’s platform and influence into broader health initiatives at the lower levels of athletics. She spoke during a press conference with reporters at league headquarters that included the NFL’s other medical experts, declining to disclose her compensation.
“It could have a watershed effect on NCAA and youth sports,” she said.
The panel included Jeff Crandall, chairman of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine Engineering Subcommittee and a professor of engineering and applied science at the University of Virginia.
Among the initiatives of his committee, which was created last fall, is to conduct safety performance tests on all 200 helmet models worn by NFL players. The results will be forwarded to the players, he said.
The panel also said the league’s Cardiovascular Health Subcommittee will embark on a mortality study from what committee chairman and Baltimore Ravens team doctor Andrew Tucker called the “super-sized era” of players from the 1980s through 2012.
The league is seeking to bolster its oversight of player safety as awareness grows of the dangers of concussions, with doctors tying neurological damage, dementia and early death in athletes to repetitive head injuries.
The NFL last month won final court approval of a $765 million settlement of ex-player head-injury claims, overriding criticism that the money falls short and the deal terms are unfair.
More than 5,000 former football players sued the league seeking damages for head injuries. In the complaints, consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia, the retirees accused the NFL of negligence and failing to tell players of the link between repeated traumatic head impacts and long-term brain injuries.
“Football is getting safer all the time,” Nabel said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. It’s going to be a long, hard journey.”