I’ve written about my thoughts on the NFL’s need to restructure its medical system in the past, but it’s time to revisit the issue. News broke this week that Bills QB Tyrod Taylor underwent surgery for a groin issue that has been bothering him for months. The Buffalo Bills PR department issued this statement:
The statement seemed to imply that the Buffalo Bills were not made aware of Taylor’s surgery until the last minute. Now, you and I may not be great at crafting statements that will not be misconstrued (yesterday I almost tweeted that for $200 Under Armour’s new pajamas better make my husband perform like Tom Brady…thankfully my 16yo boy sense of humor picked up on my mistake) but PR departments tend to be pretty good at it since messaging and branding is their job. Today, the team sent a new message – NFL league sources have told insider Adam Schefter that the Bills were involved in the decision-making for Taylor to have core muscle surgery this week. And the spin machine keeps churning…
Why is this important? Because Taylor has not performed as well this season as he has in the past and some questioned whether the Bills may release him in the coming months. The starting quarterback was benched for the last game of the season and this was described as a “business decision” to prevent him from being injured. Taylor has a clause in his contract that guarantees his 2017 salary, $27.5 million, if the Bills release him for injury sustained while playing for the team. Shalise Manza Young of ESPN boiled it down to this: “If Taylor can’t pass a team physical by March 11, the Bills are on the hook for his 2017 salary.” (her article is awesome, highly recommend checking it out)
So let me see if I can get this right – an NFL athlete who saw a slip in his numbers this season was benched for the last game to avoid injury potentially so the team could release him without penalty. Unfortunately, the athlete has a nagging injury that the Buffalo media reported about a month ago as potentially requiring surgery in the offseason. The athlete went ahead and scheduled surgery immediately after the season’s end so as not to waste any time and the team responded by initially saying they didn’t know anything about it. And now it’s up to the team-employed orthopedic doctor to evaluate Taylor prior to March 11th to decide whether or not he is physically able to play football for either the Bills or another team (if he is released). If the TEAM-EMPLOYED physician says he’s not fit to play by March 11th, the Bills are out $27.5 million dollars or stuck with a quarterback they don’t want.
No conflict of interest there! Look, I understand why having a team-employed physician works well for both players and the team. They are part of the family, know the players well, and can treat the players with whom they’ve cultivated some level of trust. Simultaneously, team physicians can advise the team on both active and potential player health which in turn drives team business decisions. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S WHAT’S BEST, especially not for the one party that matters most in this conversation – the athletes. One fan mentioned this issue on Twitter today and former Chargers team doctor David Chao responded:
While I respect Dr. Chao’s opinion on this and understand his position of NFL experience, I must disagree. While we physicians strive to avoid conflict of interest and always put patients first, study after study shows that even the most well-meaning physicians can be subconsciously yet powerfully swayed by pharmaceutical companies, management demands, personal experiences, and other outside forces. I have no doubt that most, if not all, team physicians ALWAYS have the best interest of the players in mind. Unfortunately, with major conflict of interest built into the medical team structure, that athlete loyalty is deeply undermined.
NFL, it’s time for a change.
My opinion on this is not unique. Researchers at the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School delved deep into the NFL medical structure and released this report with recommendations for the NFL. Their research was supported by the NFLPA and can be found here. I tried to summarize it in an earlier blog post “Should the NFL overhaul its medical system? Why the Harvard study has it right.“