The competition to study the brains of former NFL players is ugly; almost as ugly as the league's decades of denying that concussions lead to long-term health issues. But the fight over the late Junior Seau took it to a whole new level—and a key player was controversial Chargers doctor David Chao, who stepped in to ensure that Seau's brain went to the league's preferred researchers.
This joint Frontline/Outside The Lines story can be confusing, but it's worth a read. It touches on an underreported facet of the research that's been done over the last decade: the race between competing groups to obtain and study the brains of deceased athletes, which more often than not turn up evidence of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE was first identified by Dr. Bennet Omalu, now associated with the Pittsburgh-based Brain Injury Research Institute, fronted by the son of Mike Webster. An unfriendly split led to another group, the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, fronted by former college player and pro wrestler Chris Nowinski. The two have traded allegations of bad science, unsupported claims, and underhanded tricks to obtain each new brain. But when Junior Seau took his own life last year, the race was on for the biggest prize of them all.
Omalu had the early lead. After receiving verbal consent from Seau's son Tyler, he had removed half of Seau's brain and preserved it in formaldehyde. He had brought his special "brain briefcase" to transport the sample for analysis. But he didn't count on the NFL and David Chao getting involved.
Tyler Seau had spoken with David Chao, the Chargers head team physician and close friends with Junior Seau for more than a decade. Recently, Chao has come under scrutiny for a series of malpractice and negligence suits. The NFLPA has asked the league to end its association with Chao, and the California Medical Board is attempting to revoke his medical license.
Chao warned the younger Seau about Omalu. According to the Frontline/OTL report, "Tyler responded that he had 'talked to the NFL' and specifically mentioned he had received advice from Chao." Minutes before the procedure was completed, Tyler called Omalu to stop him from taking Seau's brain.
Chao and unnamed persons in the league office then began making calls to three top members of the league's concussion committee. The body is ostensibly independent, but it is funded by the NFL, reports directly to Roger Goodell, and its members expenses are paid by the league.
The concussion committee had long recommended the league ally with a new brain bank associated with the National Institutes of Health, and pushed hard for the Seau family to select the NIH program to study Junior Seau's brain. The league has said the NIH, with the government imprimatur, would be an unbiased option when compared with the Pittsburgh and Boston groups, who have long been critical of the NFL's efforts on player safety. But the ties were there too: Dr. Russell Lonser, the NIH's chief of surgical neurology, was also the head of research for the NFL's concussion committee. Bob Fitzsimmons, a cofounder of the Pittsburgh group, alleges that the NFL pays the NIH researchers "a pretty good salary, too."
With Chao and the NFL in their ear, the Seau family decided to send Junior Seau's brain to the NIH. Four months later, the NFL donated a record $30 million to the NIH. If you're looking for possible reasons why the league hasn't made a fuss about Chao's continued employment, this is a major one: without him, the league wouldn't have been able to keep control of its most famous CTE sufferer.