Report: The NFL Is Still Influencing The Direction Of Concussion Research

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Outside the Lines just released a big ole report on how the NFL funds significant amounts of scientific research on the effects of concussions, as well as how they tend to steer that research towards conclusions favorable to themselves. It’s a big, complicated issue, and the report gets into all the messy contradictions in play here.


The report first lays out how the NFL has donated over $100 million to research on head trauma. It’s important to note that this sum of money makes them by far the largest donor to this sort of research. Obviously, they are, at this point, aware that the sport of football carries risks and that concussion science is very tricky and poorly understood. So the issue here is not that the NFL is ignoring the science, it’s that it’s guiding it:

In at least six instances over the past two years, NFL-affiliated grants totaling several million dollars have gone to scientists or institutions directly connected to the league, the data show. The NFL and its partners awarded nearly $4 million for projects tied to the co-chairman of its powerful Head, Neck and Spine Committee, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, including a $2.5 million concussion clinic affiliated with Ellenbogen and another top NFL adviser.


When an NFL-backed group led by Ellenbogen was not selected for a research grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH), they challenged the NIH’s ruling and attempted to discredit the researchers who were selected for the grant. When their appeals didn’t work, they pulled the study’s funding:

After an NIH review selected a competing proposal, Ellenbogen and two other senior NFL health and safety officers challenged the decision in a conference call, a senior agency official recently told Outside the Lines. Ellenbogen’s participation on the call as an NFL adviser who was also an applicant for the NFL-funded grant “undermines the integrity of the entire peer-review process,” said one researcher who works closely with the NIH and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.


At the time, the NFL argued that the researcher who was selected for the study, Robert Stern of Boston University, is biased and that the review was marred by a conflict of interest. According to a source familiar with the complaint, the NFL initially raised its concerns in an email from Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist and NFL adviser who once led the NFL’s discredited concussion research program.

After the NIH concluded that the NFL’s complaints were unfounded, the NFL reversed a commitment to fund the project. The NIH used taxpayer money to keep the study alive.

The NFL getting into the study-funding game is certainly good for the scientists it sponsors. Scientific research has to follow the money, and the more funding head trauma work gets, the faster progress gets made. Unfortunately, the NFL isn’t simply giving money to scientists so they can pursue breakthroughs, they’re reportedly picking and choosing specific studies and people to fund. When research reveals findings that reflect poorly on the NFL or its future prospects, they work to silence them or contradict them through other studies:

NFL politics have clouded at least two other scientific initiatives over the past two years. The league funded a recent study that raised questions about the accuracy of helmet sensors — devices that track the frequency, location and magnitude of hits to the head. The expert who edited the paper told Outside the Lines that the researchers hired by the NFL created a standard for accuracy that was unattainable. Last year, the league and the NFL Players Association cited the results of the research as justification to indefinitely suspend the implementation of sensors in the NFL — even though the instruments have been used to study and prevent concussions for more than a decade.


The NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee counts Kevin Guskiewicz among its members. Guskiewicz has previously pilloried the NFL for its propaganda-esque science, but has now walked back some of his own critical findings since coming on with the NFL:

Once a harsh NFL critic who compared the league’s “industry-funded research” under Pellman to an airport security breach, Guskiewicz is now part of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, which helps shape league policy. Some researchers believe that since affiliating with the league, Guskiewicz has softened his previous positions, including the conclusions of his own pioneering research. Guskiewicz said he has remained consistent: that previous concussions can lead to long-term consequences, including depression and mild cognitive impairment, but that much is still unknown about the connection between football and brain disease.

During his speech in Chicago, Guskiewicz downplayed the importance of “sub-concussive” hits, which some researchers cite as the likely source of brain disease associated with football. The theory is especially thorny for the NFL, because it would mean the damage is produced by the unavoidable helmet-to-helmet contact that occurs on every play and in practice drills.


This took his peers by surprise:

“The whole group of us at our table were going, ‘What? You gotta be kidding me,’” [Hans] Breiter said. “It was really bizarre. We all started to look at each other and say, ‘This is what happened with Big Tobacco.’ It felt like we were going back to the stage where the people who were funded by Big Tobacco were saying smoking is not harmful.”


This sentiment is apparently quite common in the concussion research world:

Inside the NIH, senior officials debated whether to accept the NFL’s money, Outside the Lines has learned. One official urged caution: Kathy Hudson, a biologist who spearheads major scientific initiatives for the NIH as deputy director for science, outreach and policy.

“She said, essentially, ‘Don’t do this. This is a recipe for disaster,’” said a person familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “She was concerned about two things: Would the NFL provide the entire amount? And would they try to control how the money was spent? In a sense, she was right, on both counts.” Hudson could not be reached for comment.


The whole thing goes a lot further, and gets into the nitty-gritty details of how scientists rely on the NFL’s largesse, while simultaneously maintaining a healthy skepticism of their motives. There’s a long section on helmet sensors and the NFL’s (and it should be said, the NFLPA’s) skepticism of their efficacy, as well as a look at how the NFL has managed studies on them. Read it all, over at OTL.

Photo via AP