Six months ago, Outside the Lines reported that the NFL pulled $16 million of funding from a National Institutes of Health study that was meant to further explore football’s relationship to CTE because it didn’t like the neurologist who’d been selected to lead the study. The NFL has continually denied that it pulled funding or exercised any veto power ever since OTL’s report was published. Today, investigators with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sided with OTL.
Democratic members of the committee opened an investigation into the NFL’s dealings with the NIH shortly after the publication of OTL’s story. According to OTL, their report—a copy of which we’ve requested but haven’t yet received—is now in, and concludes that “while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research.”
The $16 million study was to be paid for from a $30 million “no strings attached” donation that the NFL gave to the NIH in 2012. But when Dr. Robert Stern, an expert who had previously been very critical of the NFL, was selected to run it, the league went about trying to redirect that $16 million in the hands of NFL-friendly researchers. From OTL:
Even after an NIH review panel upheld the award to Stern, the NFL sought to funnel the $16 million to another project that would involve members of the league’s brain injury committee. The plan would have allowed the NFL researchers to avoid the NIH’s rigorous peer-review process. NIH Director Francis Collins rejected the idea.
The investigation also concluded that the co-chairman of the NFL’s committee on brain injuries, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, acted as one of the league’s “primary advocates” opposing Stern. Ellenbogen had also applied to lead the study in question, but was passed over by the NIH in favor of Stern.
The congressional investigators’ report cites several examples of the NFL attempting to directly interfere with the NIH’s decision-making process. One such example involves Dr. Elliot Pellman—the infamous quack whose life’s work has been concealing the effects of CTE, but still, somehow, draws an NFL paycheck—reaching out directly to the FNIH (the foundation that funds the NIH) to voice the NFL’s concerns. From OTL:
On June 17, Dr. Elliot Pellman, the NFL medical director who once ran the league’s discredited concussion research program, emailed Dr. Maria Freire, FNIH executive director, to say the NFL had “significant concerns re BU and their ability to be unbiased and collaborative.” He asked Freire to “slow down the process until we all have a chance to speak and figure this out.”
In December, the NFL tried to downplay Pellman’s current role with the league, telling Deadspin that he “plays a useful administrative role.”
OTL has more on the investigation’s findings, but the big thing to take away from this is that the NFL cares far more about controlling the narrative around football’s relationship to CTE than it does actually trying to find ways to prevent the disease. Despite what the league has repeatedly said, there were always strings attached to that $30 million donation, strings that were supposed to ensure that it ended up in the pockets of doctors and researches who could help craft the particular story about CTE that the NFL wants told. When the league didn’t get its way, it embarked on a behind-the-scenes campaign that NIH researcher Dr. Walter Koroshetz described as unprecedented.
The NIH’s study will go forward as planned despite the NFL’s attempted meddling, funded by a body with an interest in science rather than propaganda: the taxpaying public.