Football team doctors are not the players’ friends

Professional football is a brutal sport and players get injured a lot. It should not be surprising that NFL teams have doctors and other medical personnel on staff and on the sidelines to take action if needed. The sight of these people rushing on the field when a player gets hurt may give us the sense that the teams care about the well-bring of the players. But what the spectators and even some players may not fully realize is that the primary aim of these medical staff is not to protect and take care of the players. Instead they represent the interests of the team and its owners who are seeking to protect their financial investment and hence they may overlook potentially dangerous and even life-threatening conditions in their effort to squeeze more playing time out of the players.

Reporter Dave Zirin in the December 2019. January 2020 issue of The Progressive magazine makes this point, highlighting the case of Washington [racist team name that I will not use] player Trent Williams.

Williams, you see, noticed a frightening-looking growth on his scalp six years ago. It turned out to be a very rare form of cancer called dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans. Speaking for eighteen minutes in front of his locker, Williams told the D.C. media why he was a holdout from the team. It was a harrowing tale that began with his asking the team medical staff about the growth and being told that it was nothing.

“I mean, the lump continued to grow over the years. It was concerning, but there was no pain involved,” he said. Moreover, “the very people I put my career in the hands of” were saying he was just fine.

But a few months back, the team’s medical staff told Williams to see a specialist. Once he was speaking to doctors not on the team payroll, he received quite the second opinion. Now he learned that this growth was not only cancerous but that he was just weeks away from seeing it metastasize to his skull and brain. The attendant surgery was dangerous enough that Williams, before going to the hospital, got his affairs in order and said goodbye to his two young daughters, ages nine and five.

After the surgery in Chicago, Williams said he needed 350 stitches and 75 staples on his scalp. No team officials visited him while he was hospitalized. [My emphasis-MS]

I am reminded of something former linebacker Dave Meggyesy of the one-time NFL team the St. Louis Cardinals once told me—that when you retire from the NFL, you graduate from being young and strong and go on to being elderly. Your body entirely bypasses middle age.

This is so true. I’ve been to retirement dinners where players no older than I am walk with canes, their backs hunched over, their faces each a rictus of pain. This is an issue not only for players but for the union, the National Football League Players Association. Players should be told that team doctors are first and foremost for the team, and should have access to independent doctors.

Although some may dismiss this concern and say that football players are adults who are knowingly taking these big risks with their health in return for big financial rewards, only a small fraction of them actually earn big money. Many of them do not get to play in the professional at all or do so for only a short time or may suffer a career-ending injury early on. But it seems wrong for even the most successful of them to have to have to take such a high risk gamble with their health and lives.


  1. says

    Am I correct in thinking that if a college player gets a career-ending injury, their scholarship goes out the window too? Because if so, if there’s ever an argument for letting the kids profit while they can…

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Doctors in the military turn out to only be concerned with getting you back into the fight. Same kind of thing. I wonder at their medical ethics.

  3. wubbes says

    Tabby Lavalamp: If a college athlete suffers a career-ending injury, most schools will honor the scholarship but convert it to a non-athletic scholarship so it doesn’t count against the NCAA scholarship limit for that sport. But this is not guaranteed and it is up to the individual school to decide what to do on a case-by-case basis. Under NCAA rules, all athletic scholarships are limited to to a term of one year and have to be renewed each year. It is far more common for an athlete to have their scholarship pulled (not renewed) for underperformance or because the school wanted to use that scholarship for a more promising athlete. In this case the athlete has no recourse.

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