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NFL disputes ESPN report on brain study funding; NIH says no NFL veto

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An ESPN report on the NFL reportedly withholding funding of a study of brain trauma and football touched off controversy Tuesday when the league pushed back on the piece, calling it “not accurate.”

Citing “sources familiar with the project,” the Outside the Lines story, headlined “NFL backs away from funding BU brain study; NIH to fund it instead,” reported the league “backed out” of the planned seven-year, $16 million research project to attempt to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients. The study was to have been paid for by a $30 million grant from the NFL made to the National Institutes of Health in 2012. Instead, the NIH will fund the study itself, according to a Tuesday morning news release.

The NFL, however, challenged ESPN’s report, saying the league’s $30 million grant was still available to the NIH and the decision to not use the NFL’s money to fund the study was made by the NIH. The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health confirmed that in a statement late Tuesday afternoon, noting the intent to use the NFL’s grant on a different project.

“NIH made the decision to fund this study in its entirety and to issue a Request for Applications (RFA) early next year to support an additional study on CTE using funds from SHRP [Sports and Health Research Program], which will double the support for research in this area,” the statement read.

The statement further added that the NFL was “willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study.”

The NFL’s $30 million grant was called an “unrestricted gift” when it was announced back in 2012 . ESPN’s report indicated otherwise, suggesting the league directly prohibited NIH from using that money to fund the Boston University project.

The ESPN article states: “The NFL has said repeatedly that it has no control over how that money is spent, but the league balked at this study, sources said, because the NIH awarded the project to a group led by Dr. Robert Stern, a prominent Boston University researcher who has been critical of the league.”

The article also states that the NFL possesses veto power over how the funds are applied, a fact the league has disputed. More from the the ESPN report:

When the NFL’s “unrestricted” $30 million gift was announced in 2012, the NIH said the money came “with no strings attached”; however, an NIH official clarified the gift terms two years later, telling Outside the Lines that, in fact, the league retained veto power over projects that it funds. [Dr. Walter] Koroshetz [director of the NIH’s National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke], affirmed that this week.
Sources told Outside the Lines that the league exercised that power when it learned that Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University, would be the project’s lead researcher. The league, sources said, raised concerns about Stern’s objectivity, despite the merit review and a separate evaluation by a dozen high-level experts assembled by the NIH.

However, Tuesday afternoon FNIH spokeswoman Abbey Meltzer told The Post in an email that the NFL “has no control over the use of these grant funds. According to our agreement with the NFL, they also have no veto power over NIH’s funding decisions.” She added that the funds from the league are subject to NIH’s normal grant terms and conditions.

“The NFL did not pull funding from the BU study,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to The Post. “The NIH makes all funding decisions. The NFL has no ‘veto power’ as part of its unrestricted $30 million grant to NIH.”

“We stand by our reporting,” an ESPN spokesman told The Post in an email.

In BU’s news release about the study, Stern called the project: “the biggest study of CTE in living subjects to date, in terms of the scope of the science, the number of participants, the breadth and depth and size of the group of investigators, and the amount of the grant.”

“The NIH is funding the CTE study led by Dr. Robert Stern at Boston University, in coordination with three other sites, which was announced this week,” the NIH said in a statement, which also noted that the NFL was funding eight ongoing studies in the area of brain trauma.

“We expect that the NFL will fund future studies to help improve player safety and health, on and off the field,” the statement continued.

This post has been updated.

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