An excellent, lengthy study from Harvard University regarding the protection and promotion of NFL player health has sparked an unexpected dispute regarding the fundamental question of whether doctors paid by pro football teams to treat NFL players have a conflict of interest.
Of course they do.
The NFL disagrees. Via Rick Maese of the Washington Post, the league’s 33-page response to the Harvard study claims that it “cites no evidence that a conflict of interest actually exists.”
The conflict is inherent. The conflict is obvious. The conflict is so clear that once the NFL decided that it needed to take concussions more seriously or Congress would, independent neurologists were hired to sidestep the inherent conflict between doctors selected and compensated by the team and the players whom the doctors evaluate and treat.
Proof of the inherent conflict resulting in harm to a player isn’t necessary to prove the existence of the conflict. The conflict definitely exists. The real question is whether steps should be taken to better manage it.
The Harvard study recommends a medical staff employed by the team and a medical staff employed for the players. While there may be a solution that entails fewer doctors (and in turn fewer dollars), the current system presumes that the doctors will act in an appropriate and honorable way, ignoring any actual or implied pressure from a coach who wants his best players to be available.
Landing a football team has become huge business for medical practices, since the relationship provides instant credibility and marketability in the community. In the past, similar business concerns have clouded the hiring process, with doctors whose practices were willing to purchase ads and suites at the stadium sometimes more likely to get the assignment.
The players don’t pick the doctors, and the players don’t pay the doctors. The team does, and if the doctors want to continue to work for the team (and to be able to tell the world that they work for an NFL team), discretion at times may need to be exercised in way that placates the team — even if it undermines the player.
The NFL doesn’t need hard proof of that happening. The NFL simply needs common sense.