In September 2012, the NFL proudly announced that it would be making an “unrestricted gift” of $30 million to the National Institutes of Health, the purpose of which was to fund further research into football’s relationship to brain damage, and to hopefully discover a way to diagnose CTE in living patients. According to ESPN’s Outside the Lines, that gift was not so unrestricted after all, and the NFL has backed away from funding a $16 million study because the league doesn’t like the respected doctor who will lead it.
Here’s Outside the Lines:
When the NFL’s “unrestricted” $30 million gift was announced in 2012, the NIH said the money came “with no strings attached;” however, an NIH official clarified the gift terms two years later, telling Outside the Lines that, in fact, the league retained veto power over projects that it funds.
Sources told Outside the Lines that the league exercised that power when it learned that Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University, would be the project’s lead researcher. The league, sources said, raised concerns about Stern’s objectivity, despite an exhaustive vetting process that included a “scientific merit review” and a separate evaluation by a dozen high-level experts assembled by the NIH.
Stern has been critical of the NFL’s handling of brain injury, particularly the $765 million class-action settlement that the league paid to retired players dealing with the effects of head trauma. Stern’s criticism of the settlement was that many deceased NFL players who were found to have had CTE wouldn’t have gotten any money from the settlement because they didn’t exhibit any of the specific symptoms that the settlement covered.
The NFL denies that it “pulled” any funding, which is doubtless technically accurate—Outside the Lines is reporting that the league exercised veto power, not that it pulled already-committed money—but beside the point. Aside from the league making clear through whatever precise means that its money isn’t to be used to fund studies run by doctors it doesn’t approve of, the big thing here is that the NFL apparently lied when it called the gift “unrestricted.” For years, the league has pointed to this “no strings attached” donation as evidence that it is serious about discovering ways to diagnose and hopefully prevent CTE. All that talk from the commissioner’s office appears to have been bullshit.
Meanwhile, the quack doctor who spent years trying to discredit and downplay football’s connection to brain trauma is still drawing a paycheck from the league.