NEW YORK — Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the National Football League’s new adviser, said Tuesday that football is safer than it has ever been, but she called on the NFL to commit more money to medical research and better educate the public about sports injuries.
Nabel, 63, in her first public comments as the NFL’s chief health and medical adviser, said that if her children were still young, she would allow them to play football. She noted that her son, now 29, played football in the eighth grade.
“I think football is getting safer all the time,” Nabel told reporters at the NFL’s offices in New York.
She rejected criticism that the NFL has done little to advance player health and safety, noting the league has several committees working on these issues.
“I know there are going to be a lot of folks out there talking about the credibility issue,” she said in an interview. “I look beyond that and say what’s the opportunity here? I’ve sensed a genuine commitment on the part of the commissioner and the owners and league leadership to have this serious dialogue. That’s why I’m engaged.”
Nabel, a cardiologist and head of one of the world’s elite hospitals, was named chief health and medical adviser for the NFL in February. She has taken the new role as the league faces mounting pressure to further address the problem of concussions and the long-term effects of head trauma for football players.
After 100 days on the job, Nabel announced a few broad recommendations. Without giving a dollar amount, she said the league should support more medical research, including work on behavioral health issues, such as depression and suicide. More research could pave the way for better tools to diagnose and treat injuries.
“There’s a lot that we don’t know yet about long-term health issues,” she said. “We’re just at the beginning of understanding the long-term effects of repetitive head injury. We need to better understand the basic biology, the basic mechanisms.”
Nabel is overseeing the league’s programs to address the health of its athletes. She and other NFL medical experts said Tuesday that they’re making progress in improving football gear, studying how the game affects players over time, and changing rules. For example, the league next season will begin medical timeouts, allowing officials to stop the game to assess a player who may be injured.
League officials said concussions are down 25 percent because of recent changes to make play safer.
But Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit that works to reduce sports-related concussions, said he was skeptical the NFL was taking health issues seriously. He said Nabel appeared to repeat the league’s talking points.
“The NFL as an institution doesn’t have a great track record on medical issues,” he said. “The reality is there’s no evidence base to say the game’s safer than it’s ever been.”
Concerns have grown over the years that football’s violent collisions lead to long-term injuries. The NFL last month settled a class-action lawsuit with thousands of former players who accused the league of hiding the risks of brain injuries. The settlement will allow for hundreds of millions of dollars to go to former players suffering from Alzheimer’s, ALS, and other conditions.
Nabel said her goal is to promote health and wellness not just within the NFL, but for all sports at all levels, including youth leagues and college sports. “It’s really about having a watershed effect,” she said.
‘We’re just at the beginning of understanding the long-term effects of repetitive head injury. We need to better understand the basic biology, the basic mechanisms.’
Nabel became president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, part of the Partners HealthCare system, in 2010. She previously worked at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, where she launched a campaign to raise awareness about heart disease in women.
Now, she is walking into a charged discussion about the country’s most popular sport.
“There’s always risks when you’re a leader stepping into a territory so fueled by debate,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “She’s in a spotlight.”
Jeff Miller, senior vice president of health and safety policy for the NFL, said the league hired Nabel because it wanted a strategist to oversee its various health and safety programs and give advice on how to advance them. Nabel said she spends about one day per month working for the NFL, as well as some nights and weekends.
Both Brigham and the NFL declined to say what the league is paying Nabel. She earned $2.4 million in total compensation as the head of Brigham in 2012.Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.