The NFL season ends Sunday, as it always does, with two teams of the walking wounded pounding each other one last time. This year it’s the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers—or if you’re inclined to credit their respective medical teams, it’s MedStar Union Memorial vs. Stanford Hospital & Clinics. The Ravens and 49ers are among the 23 NFL teams with “official” health care providers. (That figure is a hand count that the league declined to confirm.) These arrangements differ, but the standard deal includes reduced-rate medical care and/or a payment from the hospital to the team in exchange for the medical provider getting to ballyhoo the affiliation in its marketing. “The halo effect is huge,” Lew Lyon, vice president of the Ravens-affiliated MedStar Sports Medicine, tells me. “Friends will call me and say, ‘Can you get me into see one of the Ravens docs?’ And they’re very accessible. They have private practice like other physicians.”
But the opacity of these marketing arrangements should give you pause as you’re weighing whether to drag your balky knee to the local jock docs. For one, by league policy, individual players are free to opt out of any official team arrangement and see another medical provider, as the Ravens’ Ray Lewis did this year when he had surgery on his triceps (and when the linebacker allegedly ingested deer-antler spray to aid in his comeback). More fundamentally, fans ought to think through the inherent conflicts of interest at play when a doctor serves both a team and a patient who happens to be that team’s employee.