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Sad Truth: The NFL Tried to Influence NIH Concussion Research

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Here is how the story goes—the NFL was facing serious push-back about the long-term effects of concussions. As a way of coping with the bad publicity, the NFL offered to give a $30 million donation for a NIH grant to study brain injury. The proposals started coming in two years later (2012) for a  “longitudinal study of individuals with a ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ diagnosis of [CTE] using brain imaging and other biomarkers.”

One of the proposals came from a group of doctors who serve on a NFL committee on brain injuries. The accepted proposal, submitted by Robert Stern, a researcher at Boston University, didn’t sit well with the NFL. First it balked, questioning Stern and BU’s impartiality, then they withdrew their original pledge of $30 million.

The story came to a head last week when the Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., released a 91-page report on the NFL and the NIH research project. The report charged league officials with trying to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease after agreeing to an unconditional donation to fund research. The report found the NFL’s actions “fit a long-standing pattern of attempts to influence the scientific understanding of the consequences of repeated head trauma.” (www.washingtonpost.com, 05/23/16)

The federal investigation concluded the following:

  1. The NFL improperly attempted to influence the grant selection process at NIH.
  2. The NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee members played an inappropriate role in attempting to influence the outcome of the grant selection process.
  3. The NFL’s rationalization that the Boston University study did not match their request for a longitudinal study is unfounded.
  4. The NFL did not carry out its commitment to respect the science and prioritize health and safety.

“In this instance, our investigation has shown that while the NFL has been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research. The NFL attempted to use its “unrestricted gift” as leverage to steer funding away.”

Of course the NFL has a reply, which fails to address the original proposal. It is the kind of denial we have come to expect when a big business is caught in a lie.  (E.g., the asbestos industry – asbestos is not harmful; Big Tobacco – smoking does not cause cancer; the auto industry – our car is not defective, it is the driver; etc.)  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told investigators, “The NFL agreed and offered to make such a contribution in the amount of approximately $2 million, but NIH declined the offer, opting instead to focus on alternative projects to which funds committed by the NFL could be applied.”   (www.washingtonpost.com, 05/23/16)

Stern’s study will go forward, funded with taxpayers’ money. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, quoted in the Washington Post, called the findings “another example of a league that is out of control.” Perhaps better put, it is an example of arrogance, hubris, greed, power and money colliding.

It is not about the money as much as it is the fact that the NFL was only pretending to care about the health of its players.   Further contradicting its purported position of protecting its players, the NFL attempted to influence and bully researchers to get the kind of ‘good press’ it badly needed in light of deaths and major disability among its former stars.

What the NFL did here is consistent with what many large corporations (and industries) do – try to influence science and research. The asbestos industry is a great example. Georgia Pacific, Ford and many others have hired engineers, scientists, industrial hygienists, etc. to write papers that contradict – literally – the rest of science and medicine throughout the world. They hire companies like Exponent (Exponent.com) to conduct “research” and “studies” that contradict the rest of the world – the real world – with junk science. They use their deep pockets to create a false image, or a false reality. It is a bit like bullying— promises are rescinded, threats are made, and in the end, we are all damaged by the corruption inherent in some of our major corporate entities.

The analysis that the NFL (owners, executives, etc.) did is very simple:  it is not in the best interests of the NFL to have scientific and medical proof concerning the harmful impact of playing football, or the effects of repeated concussions.  Some of the football greats are dying as a result of their time in the league. Many have already died or live today in great pain and/or with a loss of cognitive and physical function due to the lasting impact of cumulative head trauma, caused by their football careers.


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  1. Steve says:
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    A congressional inquiry is warranted and the threat of the removal of the anti trust exemption is the last thing the owners want. The focus should be in neck strength and the jaw’s ability to effect neck function. A major issue is the fact that the NFL has allowed players to participate without mouth guards for decades. The military has identified the chin strap as the culprit and its gone ignored even today. If the NFL and NHL continue to allow players go participate without proper jaw protection, the issue will continue. While no mouth guard can prevent all types of concussion, neuromuscular mouth guards can help evaluate and promote neck strength, Neck strength has shown to be a preventative factor in reducing many types of concussion. http://www.shockdoctorppm.com