Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Nabel is a cardiologist, a vascular biologist, a hospital administrator, and a lifelong football fan. That combination helps explain why the National Football League tapped Nabel as its first-ever chief health and medical advisor, a position from which she offers expert opinion on how to make the sport safer for players.
The appointment, announced at the end of last season, comes amid concerns that the NFL isn’t doing enough to protect its athletes from repeated head injuries. STAT spoke with Nabel before the world premiere on Tuesday of “Concussion,” a movie starring Will Smith that tells about the discovery of a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, found in the brains of dozens of former players who died prematurely.
What is your role as medical advisor?
I’m here to have a major impact to improve the health of players and to make the game safer — pure and simple.
How long have you been a football fan?
Growing up in Minnesota, my family were big Minnesota Vikings fans. Those were the days of Fran Tarkenton — which I know ages me. When my husband [Dr. Gary Nabel, Sanofi’s chief scientific officer] and I joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1987, we became huge football fans. Real “Go Blue”. We watched Tom Brady play when he was back at Michigan. That endeared us to being Patriots fans long before we moved to New England.
Do you watch football now with a different eye, since consulting for the NFL?
I’m constantly watching for injuries. I’m watching for that hard hit or the player that goes down and twists the ankle or the knee.
Can concussions be prevented?
Probably not completely when you have a high-impact sport.
How has our understanding of concussions changed in recent years?
We used to think that the head trauma was linear [but] we now know rotational trauma is also important. The brain is really soft tissue encased in fluid inside hard skull, so if the brain rotates around in that hard skull, it can lead to inflammation.
As shown in the movie “Concussion,” the NFL and some scientists denied for a while that CTE was a real condition. Is there any doubt anymore?
It’s a very complicated topic. It’s very complicated from a medical perspective, and I think it’s also complicated from a media-messaging perspective. We know what the pathology looks like, but we are less clear what are the causes that lead to it.
You’ve expressed concerns about researchers at Boston University studying CTE. What troubles you about their work?
There are 22,000 former NFL players. I believe the BU group has reported on 90 to 95 specimens. That gets to be a pretty small percent. Let’s not jump to conclusions. We really do need to understand the longitudinal health of the 22,000 former players and the current players.
You’re obviously a busy person. Why would you take the time to work with the NFL?
I truly believe the NFL has an unmatched platform to affect change not just in football or in professional sports, but across all sports. At the end of the day, that’s why I’m here.
And you’re having fun with it?