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ESPN’s Outside the Lines brotherly investigative duo, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, on Monday published the damning findings from a recent congressional report on the NFL. The report accused the NFL of leading “an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign” against a government-backed study on concussions to which it had pledged $16 million.
In response, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith put the NFL on blast, saying the league did not have a commitment to player safety.
“This is one of the most troubling and disturbing reports that I have seen,” Smith said in a Monday-morning appearance on ESPN. “I wish that I could say that I was surprised, but the league has a history of being bullies.”
Today, hearing that report from Capitol Hill just reaffirms the fact that the league had its own view about how they care about the players of the National Football League. Thankfully we have a union that fights them. But now everybody now knows that the league really doesn’t believe in following the science. The league doesn’t really have a commitment to the health and safety of our players.
According to Outside the Lines, after the National Institutes of Health awarded the NFL’s $16 million pledge to concussion research to Dr. Robert Stern, a prominent Boston University researcher whom the NFL did not favor because of his past research, the league tried to pressure the NIH to divert the money to a different project.
When the NIH turned down this proposal, according to the congressional report, the NFL backed out of the agreement to pay for the study, and taxpayer money ended up fronting the cost.
The NFL’s actions violated policies that prohibit private donors from interfering in the NIH peer-review process, the report concludes, and were part of a “long-standing pattern of attempts” by the league to shape concussion research for its own purposes.
“In this instance, our investigation has shown that while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research,” the report states.
The report is particularly critical of Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the cochairman of the NFL’s committee on brain injuries. According to ESPN, Ellenbogen was a major adversary of the Boston University study. He had also reportedly applied for the same $16 million funding that Stern received.
From the report (via ESPN):
“Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL adviser,” the report states. “He had been part of a group that applied for the $16 million grant. After his group was not selected, Dr. Ellenbogen became one of the NFL’s primary advocates in expressing concerns surrounding the process with the BU grant selection … This series of events raises significant questions about Dr. Ellenbogen’s own bias.”
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered perhaps the most damning summary of the entire situation.
“They wanted to look like the good guy, like they were giving money for this research,” Pallone said of the NFL. “But as soon as they found out that it might be somebody who they don’t like who’s doing the research, they were reneging on their commitment, essentially.”
In a statement provided to Business Insider from spokesman Brian McCarthy, the NFL said it rejects the allegations posited by the Democratic Staff Report of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Committee.
There is no dispute that there were concerns raised about both the nature of the study in question and possible conflicts of interest. These concerns were raised for review and consideration through the appropriate channels. Ultimately the funding decision was made by the FNIH/NIH, not the NFL, as the FNIH’s public statement of December 22, 2015 confirms. The nature of those conversations and a detailed account of the concerns were communicated in full to the committee members. It is deeply disappointing the authors of the Staff Report would make allegations directed at doctors affiliated with the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee without ever speaking to them.
In 2012, the NFL committed $30 million to the NIH to advance the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of head injuries. To date, $12 million has been allocated for pathology studies through the Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP), two $6-million cooperative agreements dedicated to defining the long-term changes that occur in the brain after a head injury or multiple concussions: Boston University School of Medicine and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs received $6 million for a study on CTE and post-traumatic neurodegeneration, and Mount Sinai Hospital received $6 million for a study the neuropathology of CTE and Delayed Effects of TBI.
The NFL is deeply committed to continuing to accelerate scientific research and advancements in this critical area, and we stand ready to support additional independent research to that end.
Updated with statement from NFL.