The NFL "improperly attempted to influence" the use of funds for research on football and brain injury, a congressional investigation by the Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commercy has found.
The results of the investigation, first published by ESPN's Outside The Lines, details the methods the NFL used to redirect funding away from Boston University, which criticized the league to an NFL-friendly team of researchers. The committee found the methods were in violation of policies at the National Institute of Health, which was funding the Boston University research.
The findings further the perception that the NFL has gone to great lengths to conceal the link between playing football and long-term brain injury — which did not go unnoticed by the league's own players.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers retweeted the ESPN report on the congressional findings without comment.
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who has been involved with a company developing a helmet more effective at preventing concussions, called out NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over the report.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith commented on the report as well:
NFL Players Association President and Cincinnati Bengals offensive lineman Eric Winston weighed in on behalf of the union:
And here's union Executive Director DeMaurice Smith:
The NFL and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health — the non-profit organization that oversees funding for the National Institutes of Health — began a relationship in 2012. The NFL "pledged $30 million in support of research on 'serious medical conditions prominent in athletes' that are also relevant to the
general population," with the agreement allowing the NIH "unconditional" discretion in assigning grant money.
One study funded by the NFL's grant money was intended for further research of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to football that is believed to be caused by repetitive head impact. Currently, there is no verified way to diagnose CTE while a person is alive, nor is there a way to track its progression.
The study was supposed to be funded almost entirely by $16 million from the NFL's grant.
The university was to decide which research team would get the funds in mid-2015. But Dr. Elliot Pellman — a rheumatologist who serves as the NFL's medical director and has attempted to downplay the effect of football on neurological health — voiced his concerns to the FNIH president and executive director about one research team in particular.
The NFL then questioned the NIH whether researcher Dr. Robert Stern, a longtime NFL antagonist, would be "able to approach their research in an unbiased manner," according to the investigation. The league's Neck, Head, and Spine Committee suggested to NFL executives that Dr. Stern's research "did not fit into the areas they wanted to research."
One member of the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine committee, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, also independently applied for the grant — which the NIH eventually intended to award to Stern at Boston University.
After a review, the NIH found that it was "entirely appropriate" that the Boston University team get the grant.
But when asked if the NFL would still fund the university's study, Jeff Miller, a league vice president said he was under the impression that the study would be funded by the NIH proper — not the NFL's grant to the FNIH.
Dr. Maria Freire, President and Executive Director of the FNIH, replied that the NIH didn't expect to use taxpayer dollars on the study. They thought they were using grant money.
"Frankly, this would also be an important statement about NFL's commitment to research and will help dampen criticism," Dr. Freire said.
Eventually, the NFL offered $2 million to cover the first year of the study, $1 million from the original $16 million grant offer, and an additional $1 million in new NFL money. The NIH rejected the offer.
The congressional investigation determined that "The NFL improperly attempted to influence the grant selection process at NIH."
"The NFL should not have intervened in the process once it had signed the research plan. It was improper for any members of the NFL's staff, as well as members of its Head, Neck and Spine Committee, to opine on the merits of Dr. Stern's grant and attempt to circumvent the peer review process," the investigation found, adding that it Ellenbogen — while not breaking any rules — shouldn't have discussed the university team's work.
The investigation questioned the NFL's own bias:
"Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL advisor," the investigation found. "He had been part of a group that applied for the $16 million grant. After his group was not selected, Dr. Ellenbogen became one of the NFL's primary advocates in expressing concerns surrounding the process with the BU grant selection."
It found that Ellenbogen "participated on a conference call with NIH and FNIH on behalf of the NFL" and reached out to NIH officials to say that he was going to ask NFL executives to not fund the university's study.
"This series of events raises significant questions about Dr. Ellenbogen's own bias," the investigation found.
The investigation rejected that the Boston University research would not fulfill the aims of the NFL's funding. It also criticized the FNIH for not better orchestrating the communication between the NFL and NIH.
The NFL, in a statement, said it rejects the allegations in the investigation:
"There is no dispute that there were concerns raised about both the nature of the study in question and possible conflicts of interest. These concerns were raised for review and consideration through the appropriate channels," Spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "Ultimately the funding decision was made by the FNIH/NIH, not the NFL."
McCarthy also said the investigative committee members made "allegations directed at doctors affiliated with the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee without ever speaking to them."
"The NFL is deeply committed to continuing to accelerate scientific research and advancements in this critical area, and we stand ready to support additional independent research to that end," McCarthy said.