The NFL's first chief medical advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, has ties to the New England Patriots and team owner Robert Kraft, the Sporting News reported Thursday.
Nabel's hiring was announced last week, signaling an improved effort by the NFL to assist in keeping its players safer and healthier. Thousands of former players have also sued the league, claiming it has not done enough to help them deal with head injuries sustained during their careers.
Nabel will work directly with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who said before the Super Bowl that the league would be creating the medical advisor position. A cardiologist and biomedical researcher, Nabel will participate on each of the NFL's medical advisory committees and identify areas where the league can improve player safety and care.
In his Sporting News article on Thursday, David Steele quoted two sports concussion experts who expressed surprise that the NFL would appoint a doctor who doesn't specialize in head injuries.
"I think it’s a good step the NFL is making," said rehabilitation specialist Dr. Michael Marino, "but the fact that it is not a brain injury specialist jumps out at me."
The article also highlights Nabel's ties to the Patriots and Kraft:
Nabel is president of Boston’s prestigious Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is a partner with the Kraft Group (Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s holding company) in a health-care center bearing the family name at the Patriot Place retail complex near Gillette Stadium. On the health center website is a photo of Nabel in a group that includes Josh Kraft, Robert's son and president of the team's charitable foundation. Kraft family members have sat on the boards of both Brigham and Women’s and the affiliated Massachusetts General.
The relationship between Kraft and Goodell was at the center of much of the public criticism directed toward the NFL during the tumultuous 2014 season. During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said he didn't think the league would do anything about the "Deflategate" scandal involving the Patriots' under-inflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game.
"I think perception is reality," the loquacious cornerback said. "It is what it is. Their résumé speaks for itself. You talk about getting close to the line, this and that. I don’t really have a comment about that. Their past is what their past is. Their present is what their present is. Will they be punished? Probably not. Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all."
GQ also published a story the week before the Super Bowl detailing the close relationship between Goodell and Kraft, especially during the immediate fallout of the Ray Rice suspension. According to the story, Kraft asked Goodell to appear in an interview on CBS News after the elevator tape of Rice striking his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, was released, and after Kraft and CBS president Les Moonves had already discussed the situation.
In a statement to Sporting News about Steele's story, an NFL spokesperson said Nabel was chosen "not for one specific area of expertise, but rather for her breadth and depth of knowledge on many medical issues, including from her perspective as the CEO of a hospital system."
Regarding a potential conflict of interest, a spokesperson for Brigham and Women's told Sporting News that Nabel's role "will be making recommendations—based on scientific evidence—to the Commissioner and NFL to enhance sports safety broadly.''
Nabel is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She will remain in both of those jobs while she serves as the NFL's medical advisor.
Nabel formerly served as director of the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
- Mike Fiammetta