CHAPEL HILL – UNC has been selected by the National Football League Players’ Association to participate in a new initiative to provide comprehensive medical support for former NFL players. This announcement comes as national conversations are happening regarding the lasting impact of concussions on athletes.
UNC’s Brain and Body Health Program, which was created by the University’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, was selected to be a medical partner of The Trust to provide former NFL players with an all-encompassing evaluation and treatment plan for their cognitive and physical functioning.
Other medical partners in The Trust are Tulane University and the Cleveland Clinic.
Kevin Guskiewicz is the co-director of the Brain and Body Health Program and a leading expert on the long-term effects of head traumas at all levels of sports competition. He is also the research director for the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.
“Last year, the NFLPA reached out to us, as well as a number of organizations, asking if perhaps we might partner with them in establishing a comprehensive program in collaboration with them to help former NFL players,” Guskeiwicz said.
Through the Center for Retired Athletes, Carolina has been working in the field of athlete health for more than a decade. In 2012, the Brain and Body Health Program was established to address the medical needs of former players upon leaving the NFL, as well as those who may be experiencing physical and mental problems as a result of years of hard hits in the league.
“I do think that this is a bigger investment in our center now that we’ve proven that we do a good job,” Guskeiwicz said. “We have an amazing team of clinical researchers here at the University.”
On the NFLPA’s part, “The Trust” program will coordinate requests from former players seeking medical assessments, take care of the travel arrangements, and pay for any medical services provided during their visit that isn’t covered through insurance.
“It is really going to provide great opportunities for these former players and for us I think to provide this comprehensive evaluation and management without worrying about what insurance may or may not cover,” Guskeiwicz said.
The NFLPA has funded projects for the Center for Retired Athletes for more than a decade.
The focus in the past has been primarily on the neurological problems that some players experience, but Guskeiwicz said that it was necessary to build a more comprehensive program.
“We have recognized that there are many other factors that can contribute to non-cognitive impairment and depression and so looking at the whole body, which is why we named our program the Brain and Body Health Program, we were able to pick up on these other factors that may help to mitigate some of the neurodegenerative changes that they are experiencing.”
Athletes can experience problems ranging from musculoskeletal pain that has led to lifestyle changes and psychological problems, chronic headaches and other post-concussion signs and symptoms, increased episodes of sadness, irritability or depression, and early signs of memory impairment.
“It’s sort of like this snowball that is rolling down this hill, rolling out of control, collecting more snow. Much the same here, if we don’t intervene, all these things can become compounded and they create a bigger problem” Guskeiwicz said. “Our goal to target this in a more comprehensive way.”
Through the programs offered at UNC, Guskeiwicz has witnessed former athletes find the help they need.
He recounted the story of a former eleven-year veteran of the NFL who was experiencing debilitating back pain, to the point where it was affecting his quality of life. After examinations, Carolina doctors realized that it was a hip problem causing the issues.
“He had a hip replacement, and the back pain over time went away, and he is now holding a job and doing well,” Guskeiwicz said. “There are a number of stories like that which we feel good about.”
With much already accomplished in the field of post-league athlete health, Guskeiwicz said that he has now shifted to research in prevention to reduce repetitive concussions in younger athletes.
“I think that if we can address this from that end of the equation, we’ll be able to prevent some of the life-changing events that occur later in the life span of athletes who really enjoy playing sports.”
The NFL has recently changed its rules to improve player safety and more changes are likely to come.
Guskeiwicz said that research conducted at UNC helped guide the league to move the kickoff point from the kicking team’s 30-yard line to the 35.
Some of the most violent collisions in the game take place during the kickoff. Guskeiwicz explained that this rule change reduced the likelihood of players sustaining a concussion during the kickoff by 42 percent.
“It is going to take initiatives like this that can use an evidence-based approach to change rules in the game, change the culture, change the behavior of players that I think ultimately will allow for players at every level to participate in a much safer way,” Guskeiwicz said.