On Tuesday, the NFL, NFL Physicians Society (NFLPS), and Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) announced the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative, a program slated to give med students from four HBCU medical schools an opportunity to experience working in sports medicine with medical staffs of NFL teams.
The Los Angeles Chargers are one of eight NFL teams that will host 16 students for one-month rotations in September and October of this year. The NFL will expand the program to all 32 teams in 2023.
"It's monumental," Chargers head athletic trainer Damon Mitchell said. "This is something that will allow Black and Brown medical students the opportunity to see what it's like to be a sports medicine doctor within this setting. I just can't wait to get started to show these students what we do, hopefully they like what we do, and hopefully it's something they'd want to do."
2022 marks Mitchell's 24th season with the Chargers and sixth as the team's head athletic trainer. The significance of being part of this initiative is personal to Mitchell himself as he attended two HBCUs, Bethune-Cookman University and Morgan State, and cites his experiences there as the key to where he is today. He holds a degree from Morgan State in health education with an emphasis in athletic training.
"For Black and Brown students, [Bethune-Cookman University] said they're gonna give you a shot and make sure you have everything available to you to be a successful college student," he said. "I'm very thankful for that and very appreciative of that because that's what allowed me to get to where I am today. I transferred from Bethune and went to Morgan State and the rest is history. I met James Collins [Chargers director of football/medical services] there. I met Darryl Conway [Senior Associate Athletic Director, Chief Health & Welfare Officer, & Chief Infection Officer for University of Michigan Athletics], another mentor of mine who allowed me to get into this setting."
Per the NFL, this initiative will provide students with specific hands-on experience at the club level. At the Chargers, Mitchell and Hoag are putting the curriculum together to have the students work with the athletic training staff and team doctors, watch practice, and see how the doctors and athletic trainers work and communicate with the players and coaches. All of this will culminate with the students attending games and seeing how the work during the week comes together on gameday.
As someone whose brother decided to become an orthopedic surgeon after an opportunity to work in a sports medicine setting like these students altered his career path, and got his own foot in the door to the NFL with an internship with the Philadelphia Eagles, Mitchell believes this program will help "open doors" for these students in an otherwise very "competitive" environment such as sports medicine.
"Students may think, 'I don't have the resources to get in, I don't know folks to help me get in, so I'm gonna look elsewhere,'" he said. "When I did an internship with the Eagles, I thought of it as something to do. But when I met Darryl Conway, he said he knew folks in the NFL, and that's how I met James and James brought me along [to the Chargers] and showed me there's other avenues of athletic training you can do, one being the professional side.
"When these students come in, I want to show them that there are other things available to you, but maybe these doors have to open up. And these other seven clubs besides us will open up some doors to these students. We need more diversity within this small population because it helps us become better medical professionals."
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