By Steve Ginsburg
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The National Football League (NFL) players union has a number of ongoing disputes with the league but player safety is the top priority, Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said on Thursday.
Smith, head of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), cited the union's recent $100 million grant to Harvard University for a study on a range of health problems, from brain damage to heart conditions.
He called the study "transformational, that will move beyond just a conversation about safety that focuses on what the next fine is going to be, what the next hit looked like, whether or not there is going to be a kick-off.
"The issue of safety in the National Football League is a bigger issue that the myopic issues that we sometimes are forced to talk about," he said.
In his annual "state of the union," Smith also vowed to keep the concussion issue front-and-center, while making sure the union knows who is treating its players.
The NFL should have a neutral "chief safety officer," to oversee the league's policies, he said.
Smith, speaking to reporters ahead of Sunday's Super Bowl, said the union is continuing to press the league for independent sideline concussion experts at every game.
He said the league's agreement with the union on how to treat concussions during a game are sometimes skirted.
"If we ... see eight, 10, 12 players who have suffered a concussive event on the sideline and we know that the sideline concussion protocol takes at least seven minutes, if we then see that player put back in the game 45 seconds later, we know that the sideline doctors have failed to employ the very protocol that we agreed to use," he said.
Smith also wants the union to have access to the background of each team's medical and training staff but has been rebuffed by the league.
The union, he said, wants to make sure "who are the individuals caring for our players and treating them -- and this is important -- treating them as patients."
He said the union wanted to know if any of the medical personnel had any malpractice judgments levied against them.
Smith slammed the NFL for allegedly requiring medical waivers from players before being treated with the painkiller Toradol and said he has filed a grievance on the matter.
"I cannot think of a more repugnant practice than a doctor forcing a patient to waive liability before he gives medical care," he said.
The league denied the practice in an e-mail to Reuters.
"It is time for us to seriously contemplate what are our players rights at work," said Smith. "I believe our players are entitled to the best medical care in the country.
"I believe that our players are entitled to have medical professionals who have been selected because of their ability to provide the best care."
Citing Thursday night games, the league's desire for an 18-game schedule, and the use of replacement referees during last year's labor dispute, the NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth said the NFL is concerned more about money than safety.
"I believe health and safety is on their list of top five things," said Foxworth. "But it comes in well behind increasing the bottom line."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)