Congressional Report Finds NFL Meddled with Governmental Study on Concussions

Congress found that the NFL tried to influence the NIH's study on CTE before backing out on its funding.

May 23 2016, 4:50pm

According to Outside the Lines, a congressional report into the NFL's involvement with the National Institutes of Health came to some damning conclusions for the league. After it was reported that the NFL meddled with, and ultimately backed out of, a $16 million grant to the NIH to fund a seven-year study into detecting CTE in living patients, Congress launched an investigation into the ordeal and found that the NFL was throwing around its weight even more than it was previously thought.

OTL obtained the 91-page congressional report and it details how upset the NFL was when the study was awarded to Dr. Robert Stern—an authority in neurodegenerative disease who has been highly critical of the league in the past—and the steps they took to try to force the NIH to remove him and replace him with a more league-friendly doctor as part of a "long-standing pattern of attempts" at gaming national concussion research to fit it's own narrative.

The report found "that while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research." And, of course, once the NFL backed out of the agreement, the $16 million cost would be passed on to taxpayers.

The co-chairman of the NFL's committee on brain injuries, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, was one of the league's "primary advocates" opposing Stern, even though Ellenbogen had applied for the same grant and stood to benefit personally. Ellenbogen previously denied to Outside the Lines that he tried to influence the NIH, but the report sharply criticizes his actions. The NFL was warned that taxpayers would have to bear the cost of the $16 million study and that the NIH would be "unable to fund other meritorious research for several years" if the league backed out. The NFL offered a last-minute, $2 million payment after an intermediary suggested a partial contribution would "help dampen criticism." The NIH turned down the offer. Even after an NIH review panel upheld the award to Stern, the NFL sought to funnel the $16 million to another project that would involve members of the league's brain injury committee. The plan would have allowed the NFL researchers to avoid the NIH's rigorous peer-review process. NIH Director Francis Collins rejected the idea.

Dr. Elliot Pellman, the man who ran the very first concussion misinformation campaign for the NFL, first lodged a complaint with the FNIH, a foundation established by Congress to protect the NIH from this exact type of interference. Hilariously, Pellman emailed the director of the FNIH in June of 2015 to voice "significant concerns re BU and their ability to be unbiased and collaborative." Dr. Ellenbogen, another NFL bag man, comes off even worse. Ellenbogen put in a proposal for the grant that ultimately went to Stern and, although he has maintained that he never took part in any meetings or conversations regarding the NIH's decision to award the study to Stern, emails, phone calls, and interviews documented by the congressional investigation tell a different story.

Despite the FNIH's role as an incubator from outside interference, a conference call was arranged to discuss the NFL's gripes over Stern's alleged bias, one which Ellenbogen participated in, despite his previous denials. After the conference call concluded, Ellenbogen called back and laid down the gauntlet, saying "he could not recommend that the NFL fund the BU study, because he believed that Dr. Stern had a conflict of interest and that the grant application process had been tainted by bias." The guy who lost out on the study, who also works for the NFL, says the unaffiliated doctor who actually was awarded the study has a conflict of interest.

More from the report:

"Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL adviser," the report states. "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. ... This series of events raises significant questions about Dr. Ellenbogen's own bias."


The report actually does criticize the NIH some, mostly for being too willing to engage with and discuss the NFL's concerns. This is most likely due to the sizable grant the NFL promised, which is a good argument for not having ever taken it in the first place. $16 million is a lot of fucking money and even if it is supposed to be no-strings-attached, both sides of the table recognized there are always going to be strings. After the NFL backed out, the cost was passed on to taxpayers, but maybe it should have been paid for by the public in the first place. There are too many competing interests when private entities get involved to sponsor research. Of course the NFL has an agenda in downplaying head injuries. Of course they don't want to pay for a study that shows the deleterious effects of their whole operation. Don't take their money. Don't pay attention to any of their studies. Don't listen to the hired goons at the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee.

Meanwhile, with all of this going on in the background, here is NFL reporter Adam Schefter, on what everyone is actually talking about in the pro football these days.