Conflicting Reports Surround NFL Funding of Football-Related Head Trauma Study

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2015

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a press conference after the NFL owners meeting in Irving, Texas, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The National Football League has reportedly removed its funding from an upcoming Boston University study into diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living athletes.

Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada of Outside the Lines reported the NFL originally provided $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research. It retained veto power over how it would be used, however, and it backed out of the project due to concerns over lead researcher Robert Stern.

Brian McCarthy of NFL PR denied the assertions made in the report, stating the National Institutes of Health made the funding decisions, and the league didn't pull out any resources from the project:

Brian McCarthy @NFLprguy

ESPN story is not accurate. NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions.

The league was concerned about Stern's ability to remain objective due to past comments, including stating commissioner Roger Goodell inherited a "cover-up" from predecessor Paul Tagliabue and opposing a settlement between the NFL and players concerning brain damage, according to the report.

Outside the Lines noted the researcher completed a "scientific merit review" as part of the vetting process before being selected. He also commented about the difference between his previous run-ins with the league and his current work.

"I am a scientist, first and foremost," Stern told OTL. "And as a scientist I have always and will always conduct research with complete impartiality. If I say things about the NFL or others that may sound negative, that has nothing to do with the impartiality of my science."

Dr. Walter Koroshetz, the director of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, stated in the report "he was never told directly" the NFL has removed the $30 million in committed funding.

The FNIH provided a full statement on the matter on the foundation's website:

Through the Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP) —a partnership among the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Football League (NFL), and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)—multiple studies have been and will continue to be funded to examine traumatic brain injury in athletes. The NFL funding commitment to SHRP remains intact. NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. Stern.  NIH made the decision to fund this study in its entirety and to issue a Request for Applications (RFA) early next year to support an additional study on CTE using funds from SHRP, which will double the support for research in this area.

Research into CTE remains a crucial part of getting a better understanding of head injuries.

Currently, the disease can only be discovered in examinations after death. Jason M. Breslow of PBS noted in September that research from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University showed 87 of 91 former NFL players tested (96 percent) came up positive for CTE.

The conflicting statements make it unclear whether the NFL removed its funds or if it was never directly involved with this potential study. The OTL report said the research plan was still announced Tuesday morning with NIH funds, but it didn't include any mention of the league.


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