Meharry Medical College students will have the opportunity to work with NFL teams to gain hands-on experience starting this fall.
The NFL announced the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline on Tuesday to increase diversity within the organization by partnering with 16 students who are specializing in primary care or orthopedic surgery at four medical Historically Black Colleges and Universities:
- Meharry Medical College in Nashville
- Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta
- Howard University College of Medicine in Washington
- Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles
Students will spend a month in the fall with one of eight NFL teams: the Titans, Falcons, Bengals, Chargers, Rams, Giants, 49ers and Commanders.
Students have the opportunity to shadow a medical team including primary care physicians, orthopedic specialists, nutritionists, behavior therapists and athletic trainers. They will learn firsthand about caring for players during the season in locker rooms and at practices and games.
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“We think one of the best parts of this program is that with diverse medical staff, we facilitate improved patient outcomes,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said.
Four students at Meharry Medical College in Nashville will participate in the inaugural year of the program.
“It is extremely competitive to get a residency program,” said Dr. Digna Forbes, interim dean of the school of medicine at Meharry. “With this, it is a specialized area that they can add to their CV to make them more competitive.”
Of the 106 students in Meharry’s Class of 2022, only four were matched with sports medicine and related specialties.
With this new program, Forbes said she hopes more students are interested and encouraged to pursue specialties in the medical field.
“While Meharry is known for our focus on producing primary care physicians, it is equally important for us to help increase diversity among medical specialties,” Forbes said. “In too many instances, minorities are overwhelmingly underrepresented.”
The NFL Physicians Society (NFLPS) and the Professional Football Athletic Training Society (PFATS) want the medical team to reflect the diversity of the players.
A 2021 study in the New England Journal of Medicine examining the diversity of the medical student population in the United States showed Black medical students comprise only 7.3% of the nation’s total. That figure has risen less than 1% over the past 40 years and is far lower than the 13.4% of the United States population that is Black. Nearly 70% of NFL players are Black.
NFLPS President Dr. Tim McAdams said he is excited about the new program and is hopeful that it will help lead to a change within the NFL.
“We have a lot of work to do,” McAdams said. “But through this type of pipeline process, we have a proven track record that these things can work.”
Anthony Casolaro, head physician of the Washington Commanders, began talks with Sills almost two years ago. Casolaro later connected with doctors at the Morehouse College of Medicine and the Howard University College of Medicine.
Casolaro said he felt the nation’s four HBCU medical schools would be the best starting place for the program. The NFL teams participating in the program were chosen in part based on proximity to the medical schools.
“These young men and women who do these rotations will have exposure to, indeed, the best sports medicine specialists in the country and in the world,” Casolaro said.
The NFL doesn’t plan on this being a one-and-done program.
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“There were many teams interested across the league,” Sills said. “But we wanted to keep this small in one year and make sure we did a quality job and assess how we can improve this going forward.”
Though the program’s first year will focus on primary care and orthopedics, the NFL plans to expand the program in the coming years to additional teams, schools and disciplines within the medical field.
“There are different roads that lead to sports medicine,” Sills said. “It wasn’t that long ago if you wanted to be in sports medicine, you had to do orthopedic or primary care.”