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NFL Announces $100M Safety Initiative With Youth-Football Component

The National Football League last week announced the launch of its "Play Smart. Play Safe" program, a significant portion of which is devoted to improving the safety of youth football.

As part of the initiative, which aims to "drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of head injuries," the NFL pledged to "commit resources to fund new studies that examine how age, size, cognitive development, and other elements should factor into youth athletics." The league's stated goal is "to equip parents with the best available information to make decisions about their children's participation in football and other contact sports."

Compared to 10 or even five years ago, there's far more available research and information about head injuries and long-term brain damage connected with contact sports, but the state of knowledge is still relatively nascent. As author Joanne Gerstner recently told Education Week, "I think we're swinging hopefully back to the middle, where we went from a position of complete ignorance maybe two decades ago, like, 'Oh, it's just a bump on the head,' to now the other side of, 'Oh my gosh, I can never let my son play football or soccer or whatever because he's going to get hurt.'"

In recent years, a number of studies have warned about the potential long-term consequences of contact sports, but none have established a causal link between participating in football as a youth and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or other long-term head trauma later in life. Correlation is not causation, as the studies often warn, and more research into youth sports is necessary before anyone can definitively claim participation in contact sports as a youth will lead to brain damage as an adult. In theory, the NFL's commitment to devoting resources toward new studies of youth-athletes could help establish more concrete conclusions about the long-term effects of contact sports, assuming the league does take a hands-off approach with researchers.

The NFL also threw its support behind athletic trainers, noting it planned to "expand the size of our athletic trainer program, funding additional athletic trainers for high schools that need them." The league's stated long-term goal "is to raise awareness about the important role athletic trainers can play in high school athletics." According to the National Athletic Trainers' Association, fewer than half of high schools nationwide have a full-time athletic trainer on staff.

As part of the initiative, the NFL pledged $100 million to "independent medical research and engineering advancements," although its recent track record in that regard has some observers skeptical. Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told CNN.com that the league "has a terrible track record in concussion and CTE research, and 2016 may be their worst year yet for ethically handling research."

In December, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported the NFL "backed out of one of the most ambitious studies yet on the relationship between football and brain disease," allegedly due to the choice of the project's lead researcher.  The NFL denied those claims, but sources told Outside the Lines that "three of the NFL's top health and safety officers confronted the National Institutes of Health" upon learning of the choice of the lead researcher, Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University. The federal government is currently investigating such claims.

Timothy O'Brien, a product liability and personal injury attorney, likewise questioned how the NFL's $100 million will be spent when speaking with Zachary Zagger of Law360.

"We have seen efforts like this before where an industry will put a lot of money behind a study and then have a heavy hand toward drafting the protocol that is designed to find a null result," O'Brien said. "The public and the players' union should really look at how the study protocol is drafted," he added, referring to the new funding initiative.

The youth-athlete component, meanwhile, drew praise.

"Providing better, safer equipment, techniques, and rules to keep those players on the field and maintain interest for a pipeline of players coming up from youth football to high school to college is most certainly worth the investment being made here," sports and entertainment litigator Timothy L. Epstein told Zagger.

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