Not shocking to our Readers. In December, sports network ESPN reported that the National Football League (NFL) refused to fund research on detecting in vivo chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from a long-term $30 million unrestricted grant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [TTA 23 Dec 15]. A 91-page report by Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which started after the December reports, confirmed that the NFL improperly attempted to shape the research after the grant, violating NIH peer-review process policies that stipulated no grantor interference. The NFL specifically objected to the objectivity of Boston University’s Robert Stern, MD heading up the $16 million project before the award in 2015, then tried to redirect the money, so to speak, in-house–to a group including Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, a member of the league’s panel on brain injuries and their bid for the project. Ultimately, the NFL withdrew the funding from the NIH, which went ahead with it. The project was awarded to BU, the Cleveland Clinic, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute (Arizona) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
The Congressional report’s six major conclusions were highly critical of the NFL in several ways and also scored the Foundation for the NIH for not acting as a ‘buffer’:
- The NFL improperly attempted to influence the grant selection process at NIH.
- The NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee members played an inappropriate role in attempting to influence the outcome of the grant selection process.
- The NFL’s rationalization that the Boston University study did not match their request for a longitudinal study is unfounded.
- FNIH (Foundation for the NIH) did not adequately fulfill its role of serving as an intermediary betweenNIH and the NFL.
- NIH leadership maintained the integrity of the science and the grant review process.
- The NFL did not carry out its commitment to respect the science and prioritize health and safety.
When the grants were announced in September 2012 [TTA 7 Sept 12], there was great cheer that finally the NFL had decided that denial was, to use the old joke, a river in Egypt, and to do something about it. This also followed Army research on TBI being supported by the NFL. The first indicator that the funds were going elsewhere, as we noted a year later, was that a year later the Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP) funds were going to other medical problems like joint diseases and sickle cell anemia. While worthy, it had not been the prime publicized objective of the funds. The Congressional committee report also details how the NFL tried to steer the research away from Dr Stern, one of the leading researchers in the field, citing his support of players who refused to accept the CTE settlement in 2014. Beyond the NFL, research on CTE and concussion will impact any contact sports as well as the military and other head traumas. This Editor has previously reported on Dr Stern’s CTE research presentations in NYC and from other researchers in the field; search on NFL and Dr Stern both in current index and the back file. Congressional report, ESPN.com, New York Times.