Did the NFL Back Out of a $16M Unrestricted Gift for Concussion Research?
Three days before Christmas, on Tuesday, Dec. 22, Boston University issued a press release announcing that the school, along with three other research institutions, had been awarded a $16 million grant for research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The seven-year study would focus on detecting the degenerative brain disease in living patients—currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death—and would be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders (NINDS).
It would not be funded by the NFL.
This was a new development. In September 2012, the NFL announced a $30 million unrestricted gift to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), the nonprofit arm of the NIH, for medical research. Per the NFL's official announcement, it was the "single-largest donation to any organization in the league's 92-year history," and would be used primarily for studies on CTE and concussion treatment. The Boston University study was to be one of them, but when it was announced, the NFL was curiously absent—the NIH would fund the study independently.
The news ignited a controversy. The same day Boston University announced the study, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported that the NFL, despite multiple claims that it had no control over how funds from its unrestricted gift were spent, backed out after learning that Dr. Robert Stern—who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NFL's concussion policies—would be heading the project. The FNIH was quick to back the league, releasing a statement that said, in part, that the "NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study," and that the NIH would be using the NFL's funding for other studies on brain injury in athletes.
But Outside the Lines told a different story. Via the report:
[Sources] told Outside the Lines that after Stern and Boston University passed a "scientific merit review" and received approval from an NIH advisory council of high-level experts last spring, the NFL raised objections to the selection. Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the NIH's National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Outside the Lines this week that he had asked the FNIH over a period of several months if the NFL would be providing funding for the study but never received a definitive response. He said he attempted to expand the study over the summer to include other researchers—a proposal that might have satisfied the league. But the NIH ultimately decided to fund the study on its own.
The report also noted that the NFL's unrestricted gift had originally come with "no strings attached," but an NIH official told Outside the Lines that "the league retained veto power over projects that it funds." A second Outside the Lines report, published January 7, backed this assertion. "However, audited FNIH financial statements describe the league's gift as a 'conditional contribution' that allows the NFL to cancel the funding," noted the report. "The previously unreported statements, posted on the organization's website, list the NFL's donation under contributions 'subject to donor conditions.' Although those conditions are not specified, the NFL grant is one of several described as 'conditioned upon meeting certain milestones and/or the funder not canceling.'"
The NFL has been under fire for the way it has handled concussions and CTE—particularly its efforts to preserve its image while masking the full extent of the concussion issue. In the mid-90s and early-2000s, during then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue's tenure, the NFL's primary research into brain injuries was conducted by the league-created Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which concluded that brain damage was, essentially, a non-issue for players. Notes Outside the Lines:
From 2003 to 2009, the NFL published its own research denying that football players get brain damage; much of that research was later discredited. But since then, the NFL has poured tens of millions of dollars into concussion research, allowing the league to maintain a powerful role on an issue that directly threatens its future.
In 2013, as the full scope of the concussion crisis began to emerge, Robert Stern—the same Robert Stern heading up the Boston University study in question—told ESPN that current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had "inherited a cover-up" from his predecessor. The film "Concussion," released on Christmas 2015 and starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered CTE, was billed as an exposé on that cover-up, but according to The New York Times, leaked emails show that Sony Pictures Entertainment altered the script to avoid provoking the NFL. "We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultants to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest,” read one of the emails. And that wasn't all. Said the same report:
Another email on Aug. 1, 2014, said some “unflattering moments for the NFL” were deleted or changed, while in another note on July 30, 2014, a top Sony lawyer is said to have taken “most of the bite” out of the film “for legal reasons with the NFL and that it was not a balance issue."
It adds up to a troubling set of allegations against the NFL. If the league indeed had a hand in controlling the distribution of funds from its $30 million unrestricted gift—if there were any limitations at all—then by definition, the gift was not unrestricted. And it feeds into the running narrative that the NFL is more interested in its image, in controlling the discussion on CTE, than it is in player safety and brain-injury research. The league's track record of alleged obfuscation certainly supports that view.
It's a valid enough concern that lawmakers have gotten involved. According to The Washington Post, four House Democrats led by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) sent letters to the NIH and the FNIH requesting communications records between the two organizations and the NFL. “This study is important, and that’s why we’re trying to get to the bottom of this,” Pallone told the newspaper.
There is no word yet if the organizations have responded.