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NFL donating $30 million to NIH for brain injury research

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The NFL is donating $30 million to the Bethesda-based Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to fund research into brain injuries and other medical issues, officials said.

It is the largest donation in NFL history, according to the league.

“Our commitment here is to hopefully help set the standard and lead the way in research about head injuries, and we’re doing it with the leading scientists,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a telephone interview.

The donation comes in conjunction with Wednesday night’s start of the NFL regular season.

It also comes at a time when the sport has been working to toughen its standards and improve its methods for diagnosing and treating players who suffer concussions, while defending itself against allegations made by retired players in lawsuits accusing the league and its teams of failing to warn them properly about the dangers of head injuries. The NFL has denied the allegations made by the former players in the concussion-related litigation.

The first set of initiatives in the NIH research funded by the NFL’s donation is to focus on mild traumatic brain injuries, said Story C. Landis, the director for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one of the 27 institutes and centers comprising NIH.

“We are really excited about this partnership,” Landis said in a phone interview. “I think their engagement and the potential future engagement of other sports organizations has the potential to produce great progress in our understanding of brain injuries in sports and outside of sports as well.”

The research is to be designed to benefit military members and the general population in addition to football players and other athletes.

“We needed to make sure the projects we undertook would be of general import,” Landis said.

NIH spends approximately $81 million annually on head injury research, Landis said. The public’s awareness of concussions has increased greatly, she said, in large part because of the attention given to head injuries suffered by athletes and troops.

“The awareness has increased because of sports, and because it is a signature wound of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Landis said.

The Foundation for NIH is an organization established by Congress to raise private funds and create public-private partnerships to support the mission of NIH.

When the NFL and the NFL Players Association completed their 10-year labor deal last year, they agreed to commit more than $100 million over the duration of the pact to medical research, primarily on research of brain injuries. Goodell said the league decided to move forward with this donation to NIH because it felt a sense of urgency to get the research going.

“We’re having those discussions with the Players Association. … We’re just proceeding [with this donation] on the basis we need to get moving on this,” Goodell said.

Discussions with NIH representatives have been taking place for at least six months, Goodell said.

“Our goal is to aggressively partner with the best scientists to understand more about the brain and brain injuries, to make things safer for our athletes and for others,” Goodell said. “If we can learn more about the brain, we can not only make football safer, but make things safer for other sports and other walks of life.”

Michael Hausfeld, a Washington attorney who represents some of the retired players who have sued the league over concussions, called the NFL’s donation merely a start to addressing the problem.

“The issue of brain injuries has two aspects—those players who played in the past, and those who are playing now or will play in the future,” Hausfeld said in a phone interview. “The gesture by the league of donating $30 million is a good beginning. But it has come late” to address all of the issues of former players.

The union issued a written statement that said: “The players applaud the NFL’s decision to independently fund a research partnership between the NFL and National Institutes of Health. We look forward to reviewing their findings.

“During collective bargaining, the players reserved a research fund that allocates $100 million over 10 years to health and safety studies that would have otherwise gone to player salaries and benefits. We are currently in the process of reviewing applications from the top medical research institutions. Our goal is to jointly select an institution that will help us address the health and wellness of the entire NFL player community. We have invited the NFL to participate in this process and hope to announce the first research grant by the middle of the 2012 season.”

The research could focus, officials said, on concussion treatment and management; chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive, degenerative brain disease that has been found in athletes and others with a history of brain trauma, including concussions; and the relationship between brain injuries and the potential for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other neuro-degenerative disorders.

In addition, officials said, the research funded by the NFL’s donation could address other medical issues such as joint disease, heat illness, sudden cardiac death in youth athletes, acute and chronic pain, and the health effects of the use of human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing substances.

NFL players suffered 266 concussions last season, according to an analysis of the league’s injury data performed by Edgeworth Economics, a consulting firm with ties to the players’ union. That was down slightly from 270 concussions suffered by players during the 2010 season, according to the firm’s analysis.

The NFL has taken several steps in recent years to attempt to curb the rate and severity of concussions suffered by players. Those measures include requiring players with concussion symptoms to leave a game or practice, and not return to play until after being cleared by an independent neurologist. The league also changed its kickoff rules last season to try to reduce the number of concussions suffered on that play.

Nearly 3,400 former players have sued the league over concussions, according to an Associated Press analysis of the lawsuits. The NFL has asked a federal judge in Philadelphia to dismiss the approximately 140 concussion-related lawsuits consolidated there, arguing that the matter should be resolved through the sport’s collective bargaining agreement rather than via the courts.