How the NFLPA uses technology and data to support overall player health

Mark Schlereth had no idea he was an NFL caution, but when the former Denver and Washington offensive lineman underwent heart surgery last April, he may have had everything to do with knees.

As a player, Schlereth had a patellar tendon, MCL, or ACL operation waiting to happen. He underwent 15 surgeries on his left knee and five more on this right, and the National Football League now knows that meant Schlereth—and others just like him—were more likely to have cardiovascular problems in retirement.

Citing Harvard University’s Football Player Health Study, NFLPA general counsel and chief commercial affairs Sean Sansiveri told SportTechie CEO Dan Kaufman on Thursday that the union continues to rely on longitudinal injury data to help prepare players for potential heart and general health problems later in life.

“We call it — my favorite buzzword — the mal-adaptive phenotype,” Sansiveri said on Thursday at the SportTechie Live session titled Innovation through Sport: Advancing Athlete Health and Wealth. “Because some players with similar exposures do well in life after football and some don’t. And as you can imagine. It’s a very complicated calculation with countless variables.”

SportTechie Live episodes are hour-long, interactive and engaging conversations with industry experts on important topics in the sports industry.

“Just because it’s interesting, one of the most striking examples of research findings when we look at longitudinal data is the relationship between myocardial dysfunction or infarction and ACL ruptures. We actually learned a couple of years ago through cohort study that a Athlete with an ACL tear is 50% more likely to suffer a heart attack later in life.”

Schlereth, who has recovered from heart surgery and is currently analyzing NFL games for Fox, is an obvious walk-and-talk example. But Sansiveri said the challenge is to “step in” and educate what’s not so obvious: current or retired players who tend to think they’re invincible.

“It all boils down to education,” Sansiveri said on Thursday. “Because we don’t know the causal link between these two data [knee surgery and heart attacks]. It’s just related, and we want to make sure all players know about it. So all of our communication programs, whether it be [NFLPA] trust program, whether it’s the Harvard Football Players Health Study, whether it’s our alumni newsletter, we’re constantly sharing this information with the player population. And, in this case, encourage early screening.”

According to Sansiveri — and fellow SportTechie Live speakers Kristy Arbogast, co-director of science at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention, and Jay Alberts, vice chair of innovations at the Cleveland Clinic — technology is their driver for the future.

Arbogast spoke to motion capture and GPS tracking systems that provide data to help correlate player movement with injury. And Alberts mentioned the NFLPA Trust program, in which data shows that out of 3,100 NFL players, many never see a doctor once they leave the league, a statistic all three panelists want to correct.

Sansiveri said the NFLPA’s mantra, pertaining to player health and safety, is specifically: whole player, whole family, whole life. This season, for example, he said the union is focusing on on-field safety in terms of “turf construction, interaction with the pitch surface and testing tools…that actually allow us to judge safety features.” and performance of a field”.

He said a second focus is on injury mitigation through analytics and tracking technology. A third goal is the ongoing development of the first prescription drug registry program “in the history of professional sports.” And one final program, considering 70 percent of the league is black, is a more diverse training staff on the sidelines of the team.

As a result, Sansiveri said the NFLPA is constantly looking for technology. He quoted Dr. Martha Murray of Boston Children’s Hospital who “had this vision to heal the ACL without atrophy from incisions from other tendons, patellar or hamstring, and without the long-term arthritis that results from traditional grafts whether of incisions from your own tendons or a cadaver.”

“So basically this tech is a surgeon taking cow collagen, 5cc of your own blood, suturing the ACL through the collagenand heal through your own nerve endings. Like most great innovations, the beauty lies in the simplicity of it all.”

Sansiveri also said the union was looking into other technologies such as self-hydrating hydrogels, non-evasive glucose monitors that measure glucose levels without drawing blood, developed by a company called Socrates.

And this is where health can turn into wealth: The NFL can guide these tech companies into investments that can help each other in the league.

“The NFLPA uses its platform to help market it [tech]”Said Sansiveri. “The benefit is not just the health of the player, but the wealth of the player through a successful exit from that company. The money would go into the NFLPA-run group licensing program and we would distribute it to NFL players.”

“Because the NFL is an inherently dangerous occupation.”

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