NFL tries to pull a fast one on funding for head-trauma research

NFL-vector-logosWhat’s $30 million among friends? When the National Football League offered in 2012 to provide that sum to support concussion research by the National Institutes of Health, the conventional wisdom held that the sports powerhouse was finally coming around. The league basked in public praise for taking a more progressive approach to its challenges with deadly, debilitating head injuries.

But a congressional panel has found the NFL’s magnanimity was a sham. Instead, pro football sought to strip $16 million of its funding from the NIH when the agency wanted to bring in Dr. Robert Stern, a Boston University researcher who has been a major critic of the league.

The NFL, instead, tried to lateral its gift to members of its own committee on brain injuries.  As for these “experts,” the New York Times reports:

Some of the characters are the same, including Dr. Elliot Pellman, who led the league’s concussion committee for years before he was discredited for his questionable credentials and his role as a longtime denier of the effects of concussions on players. [And there was] Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the league’s committee on brain injuries. According to the congressional study, he bid on the research grant and then directly lobbied the National Institutes of Health to discredit [Dr. Stern’s] work.

The NIH, to its credit, rebuffed pro football’s below the belt play and stuck with neuropsychologist Stern of BU. But the agency ended up paying for its concussion studies, since the NFL withheld its pledged financing. Taxpayers footed the bill.

As ESPN reports: “The NFL’s actions violated policies that prohibit private donors from interfering in the NIH peer-review process … and were part of a ‘long-standing pattern of attempts’ by the league to shape concussion research for its own purposes.”

As I’ve written before, the NFL already was under fire for taking a page from Big Tobacco’s play book by playing fast and loose with data fundamental to studies published in respected, peer-reviewed medical journals that sought to downplay its athlete’s risk from head trauma.

The league’s commissioner sought to downplay the damaging conclusions of the latest congressional inquiry, noting that the NFL remains committed to dealing with its concussion-related woes.

The league already will be paying more than $1 billion as part of a still-contested settlement with former players who claim they were lied to and harmed by the way their head injuries were managed while they were pro players.

Revelations about pro football’s mendacity are dispiriting, of course, because the league is so popular and it holds great influence on public attitudes about sports. What pro stars do holds huge sway with young athletes─though many of their sporting leagues and leaders are getting a clue and doing more to protect vulnerable youthful lplayers.

What’s also mystifying is why the NFL keeps finding itself so behind on this issue. Even as the research scandal unfolded, the estate of All-Pro defensive end Bubba Smith, an athlete who had a second career as a popular movie star, disclosed that, when he died in 2012, he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.

ESPN also reported that Dave Mira, 41, a star of the off-road bike racing sport BMX, also had CTE when he committed suicide on Feb. 4. His family asked a University of Toronto neuropathologist to investigate his death and brain health.

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