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NFL awards $35 million in grants for concussion-related medical research

The NFL announced the awarding of grants for medical research into brain health and injuries. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
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The NFL has awarded more than $35 million in grants to fund medical research into brain health and injuries, the league said Thursday.

The grants were made as part of a $100 million initiative announced by the league in 2016. Under that initiative, which the NFL called “Play Safe. Play Smart,” the league said it would devote $60 million to technological research, including attempts to improve helmet safety for players, and $40 million toward the funding of medical research into the effects of head injuries.

The NFL established what it called an independent scientific advisory board of doctors, scientists and clinicians to identify and support research proposals.

The grants announced Thursday were made to research projects evaluated and chosen by that scientific advisory board, the NFL said. That panel was chaired by Peter Chiarelli, a retired U.S. Army general who is the former CEO of One Mind, a nonprofit organization focused on the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.

“What we wanted to promote was translational research, research that was going to help patients understand the disease today …. We feel very strongly that the research we recommended to the NFL is going to do just that,” Chiarelli said in a phone interview.

The advisory board reviewed 129 proposals, whittled that to eight finalists and recommended five of those eight to the NFL for funding. The NFL accepted all five recommendations, according to Chiarelli, who said the research will have applications beyond football.

“This is a public health problem that’s significant, that doesn’t just affect football players and soldiers,” he said.

Concussions were down 13 percent during the NFL preseason, league says

The largest award announced Thursday was a nearly $14.7 million grant to Boston Children’s Hospital and the Harvard Medical School for a study to assess the neurological health and track the progress of a group of as many as 2,500 former NFL players originally assessed in 2001. As the research, being led by William P. Meehan III, nears its conclusion, the NFL said, players who exhibit impairment will be eligible for clinical trials of promising treatments.

The NFL said it awarded $9.4 million to a University of Calgary study of concussions suffered by high school student-athletes; nearly $6.1 million to a study of brain health of retired football players by the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; nearly $3.5 million to a University of California-San Francisco study of clinical knowledge and research into traumatic brain injury; and nearly $1.6 million to a study by the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Harvard Medical School into brain injuries suffered by young athletes in football, hockey, soccer, rugby and other collision sports.

The University of Pittsburgh study is to compare the rates of brain injuries and disease in retired football players to those of a control group, perhaps getting at the issue of whether such issues are more prevalent for NFL players.

The remaining $5 million of medical funding toward the $40 million commitment has been allocated to research on player health and safety under the guidance of Chiarelli, the NFL said.

“I believe what you’re going to see is this was the best $35 million ever spent in this particular field,” Chiarelli said.

Ex-NFL player Larry Johnson grapples with violent urges and memory loss. He thinks it's CTE.

The allocations announced Thursday are separate from the more than $17 million of funding for research into concussions and the effects of brain injuries that the NFL reallocated in January after a controversy over funding for research by the National Institutes of Health.

In that case, the NFL was scrutinized by members of Congress over accusations that the league and its head, neck and spine committee tried to influence a study by attempting to steer the research to someone with ties to the NFL. The league denied the accusations, saying it raised concerns appropriately and through proper channels. Under the reallocations, the funding was divided among research done by the Department of Defense, TRACK-TBI (a study funded by NIH) and the National Institute on Aging, a branch of NIH, according to the NFL.

Chiarelli said that the panel he oversaw to award this funding made its own choices about which studies to recommend.

“I can say with assurance this was totally an independent scientific advisory board,” he said. “We were totally independent.”

That sentiment also was expressed by another member of the group.

“This process and the [scientific advisory board] members were independent and we focused on the science,” said Sidney Hinds, a brain health research program coordinator at the Department of Defense.

Thursday’s allocations come after the NFL said last month that the number of concussions suffered by players during the preseason this year was down about 13 percent from last year. The decrease came after the league enacted a plan to reduce concussions following a 2017 season in which concussions were up.

The NFL’s plan focused on reducing concussions during the preseason, getting players to wear better-performing helmets and enacting rule changes. The rule changes included modifications to kickoffs and a ban on players lowering their head and using their helmet to initiate hits.

The NFL previously reached a $1 billion settlement with former players who had sued over the effects of head injuries.