The NFL has given the National Institutes of Health less than half of the $30 million they promised for concussion research five years ago, and after repeatedly trying to influence how their “unrestricted gift” was used, the league is letting their agreement expire with no plans to finish paying up.
The news comes from a report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, two days after ranking members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce published a letter to the NFL demanding to know when the $30 million would be paid in full. The league responded to Congress with a mealy-mouthed statement about being “engaged in constructive discussions,” but the NIH told ESPN today that there are no current plans for the remaining funds and the agreement will simply expire next month as originally planned—with at least $16 million yet to be paid.
The fact that the NIH is willing to let the deal lapse without pushing for the millions of dollars they were promised is a sign of how broken the relationship with the NFL has become, thanks to the league’s heavy-handed attempts to guide the research. Though the NFL called the gift “unrestricted” when it was announced back in 2012 and the NIH described it as “no strings attached,” the league still had veto power over research projects—and they used it.
This first came to light in 2015, when Outside the Lines discovered that the NFL had refused to allow $16 million of their gift to go to a study led by Dr. Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University. Stern went through a “scientific merit review,” plus a separate evaluation by a dozen experts, before being named the lead researcher. The NFL, however, raised concerns about his objectivity—presumably because Stern had publicly criticized the NFL for its treatment of brain injuries in the past. The study is now being funded by the NIH, with no money from the league.
The NFL trumpeted this gift as proof of their commitment to addressing CTE and head trauma. It’s abundantly clear now that this was simple lip service. The NFL was not committed to concussion research; it was committed to receiving praise for concussion research done on their terms and their terms only. The NFL, in other words, was interested in paying for propaganda, and the NIH refused to play along.