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Can Team Physicians Buy Credibility?


Medical care for several professional teams has been placed on the auction block in recent years, with some teams, like the New York Yankees and Mets, getting $1.5 million a year (1). Is it acceptable for HMOs, hospitals, or physician groups to pay to be the exclusive medical providers of a sports franchise or university athletic department?

At first glance, this may seem to be one of those "win-win" situations. The medical institution uses its association with the team to boost its profile by spending money already designated for marketing. The team gets both medical coverage and cash. If it sounds so good, why has the concept taken so long to catch on?

Well, I can think of a few drawbacks. There are a limited number of high-profile teams, and vying for recognition through affiliation carries the real and unpleasant reality of rather intense competition within sports medicine. The ensuing professional rivalry does little to inspire patient confidence or to advance the profession.

Surprising as it might be, another drawback is that the group or institution seeking the contract often lacks sports medicine expertise. Because sports medicine is not a specialty, no method exists for preventing any group with an interest and some money from getting involved (1,2).

A third drawback is that it is hard to see how an athlete would feel confident about a medical practitioner who has paid money to provide team coverage. Fourth is that a relationship between a team and a medical institution's administrators is very different from a relationship between a team and a physician. Fifth, we all know of instances in which team physicians have been selected for all the wrong reasons—they know the team owner, they are friends with the athletic director, etc. Selecting physicians based on who pays the most fits into this category. Finally, one would think that athletes would be more likely to seek second opinions—often from former team physicians who were replaced by the highest bidder—making medical care unnecessarily complex and difficult to coordinate.

More important than any of these drawbacks is the issue of whether teams, franchises, and athletic departments have the expertise to evaluate and select highly competent medical practitioners appropriate to athletes' needs. Teams should be in the business of ticket sales, competitive schedules, hiring coaches, and entertaining fans but should eschew involvement in healthcare. There should be no conflict of interest, real or perceived, about whether performance or health is accorded primacy. The team physician must operate unfettered as a practitioner who understands the culture of sports but practices the time-honored principles of quality medical care.

In many ways, we end up where we began. Healthcare is not about who we treat but how well we treat. Accepting accolades or boosting our reputation through affiliation with high-profile athletes creates an image of promotionalism, rather than the desired perception of excellent quality of care. Our goal should not be recognition through association but respect through competency.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD


  1. Beaton R: Team physician jobs can be bought. USA Today. October 18, 2021:1C
  2. Beaton R: Medical staff moves spur quality-of-care questions. USA Today. October 18, 2021:8C