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Op-Ed: More Diversity in Sports Medicine has the Potential to Improve Athletes' Health

By Dr. Lisa Barkley, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Charles R. Drew University and Dr. Timothy McAdams, Head Team Physician for the San Francisco 49ers

As the National Football League begins another exciting season, players are once again relying on their club medical staffs to provide medical care and advice to stay healthy throughout the season. But this year, in additional to their clinical care, these club physicians and athletic trainers are also helping train medical students from Historically Black College and University (HBCU) medical schools across the United States as the league supports efforts to diversify the sports medicine profession.

There is an ongoing lack of racial/ethnic diversity among sports medicine physicians, and the medical profession in the United States in general. In a 2021 study, 84.5 percent of physicians across American professional sports teams identified as white, while 8.4 percent identified as Asian, 5.8 percent identified as Black and 1.3 percent identified as Hispanic/Latino. Data from the American Association of Medical Colleges in 2021 shows that Black students comprise only 11.3 percent of the total medical school population in the U.S. and Hispanic/Latino students comprise 12.7 percent. These figures that have changed very little over the last 40 years.

We believe that improving diversity among professional team physicians has the potential to positively impact patient outcomes and patient experience. That is why the NFL, the National Football League Physicians Society (NFLPS) and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) are working together to create a pipeline to expose diverse medical students to the field of sports medicine. This NFL season, 14 students from the nation's four HBCU medical schools will be embedded within NFL club medical staffs as the inaugural class of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative.

The goal of this program is to expose medical students from HBCU medical schools to sports medicine mentors through clinical rotations with NFL teams. This experience will provide these students with the opportunity to work directly with team doctors and athletic trainers, observe and participate in the care of NFL players and forge lasting professional relationships with leaders in the field of sports medicine. By the end of the rotation, students will understand the basic elements of all facets of care provided to the professional athletes and will have a network of mentors that last far beyond their one-month clinical rotations. We believe this pipeline approach addresses a key root problem – the lack of access to sports medicine professional mentors – and can be replicated by other sports leagues, and in medical settings more broadly.

The NFL, its clubs, PFATS, the NFLPS and the four HBCU medical schools are all collaborating to bridge the diversity gap in sports medicine – not only because it's the right thing to do, but because ensuring that NFL medical staffs reflect the diversity we see in the league's player population can change lives for both the players and the medical professionals. We view this as an opportunity to lead, and make a real, direct impact on patient care among professional athletes, and the medical community more broadly.

The NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative isn't a one-time, one-year program, but an ongoing, sustained commitment and therefore will have lasting effects. As the inaugural class of students arrives at NFL clubs, we are thrilled to see this program come to life and look forward to the bright future ahead for the program, for player care and for sports medicine well beyond the NFL.

Dr. Lisa Barkley is the Chair of the Department of Family Medicine and the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Charles R. Drew University. She specializes in family, adolescent, and primary care sports medicine and is currently the Diversity Trustee for the American College of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Timothy McAdams is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Stanford University, specializing in sports medicine. He serves as the Head Team Physician for the San Francisco 49ers and is President of the NFL Physicians Society.