UNC-Chapel Hill to provide health care for former NFL players

jstancill@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

— UNC-Chapel Hill will provide comprehensive medical care for former professional football players who face health struggles, including the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head.

The NFL Players Association this week announced a new program called The Trust, designed to care for former players. UNC-Chapel Hill was chosen to be a partner in the initiative, along with Tulane University and the Cleveland Clinic.

The program is financed with money from the players union’s collective bargaining agreement with the league.

Officials with the association described The Trust as an effort designed to provide “an ecosystem of support” for former players who increasingly face medical problems after years on the field. Besides brain and body health care, free support will include career and financial counseling, educational resources and help with establishing healthy lifestyles and relationships.

Under the plan, UNC-Chapel Hill doctors will provide former NFL players with a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan for cognitive and physical function. The university has a Brain and Body Health Program, which is part of its Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

“We’re thrilled about this,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Brain and Body Health Program and an expert on the long-term impact of head trauma in sports. “We’ve been working on this for more than a year now.”

Former athletes will be given access to individualized treatment, including health screenings, medical history, neurological and psychological exams, MRI scans and evaluations by sports medicine specialists. Players will get care and counseling from exercise physiologists, nutritionists and coaches who specialize in life skills and transitions.

The NFL career can be a life of hard knocks, literally, Guskiewicz said.

Health problems can begin to snowball after retirement, which can be as early as age 26. It’s not uncommon to see former players depressed and coping with arthritis, pain, obesity and hypertension, he said.

‘Quick tumble down’

“It can be a quick tumble down the mountainside for some of them,” Guskiewicz said, “so we’re trying to prepare them for a life after football.”

More and more former players have reported cognitive impairment and problems with depression and dementia after years of head trauma on the playing field. In August, the NFL agreed to pay $765million to settle a concussion lawsuit with 4,500 retired players.

The situation has been called an existential crisis for the NFL and for the game of football.

Recently, a PBS “Frontline” documentary focused on former players’ brain injuries, as does a new book, “League of Denial,” by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. Last week, three retired players, including former Dallas Cowboys running back and Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, disclosed their diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease associated with concussions. Symptoms include depression, memory loss and dementia.

Former NFL star quarterback Brett Favre also recently said he had memory loss that he attributed to repeated hits to the head during his playing career.

‘It’s OK to talk about’

The fact that so many ex-players are being honest about their problems has helped improve the situation, Guskiewicz said.

“There’s this warrior mentality that athletes in general have,” he said. “I think that in the past, they needed to hold on to that even in their retirement years – this tough guy approach.”

Now, he said, players understand that “it’s OK to talk about the struggles you’re having.”

UNC-Chapel Hill has another connection to the The Trust program for former players. Jeff Saturday, a former Tar Heels center who went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts and the Green Bay Packers, is one of five captains heading up an effort to reach out to former players.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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