While the NFL pledged money, held news conferences and issued media releases about its commitment to player health, safety and concussion research, the league also was engaged in a campaign to steer money away from a prominent Boston University researcher and attempted to redirect it to members of its own committee on brain injuries, according to a scathing Congressional report.
The 91-page report issued Monday by the Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), charged league officials with trying to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease after agreeing to an unconditional donation to fund research. The report found the NFL’s actions “fit a long-standing pattern of attempts to influence the scientific understanding of the consequences of repeated head trauma.”
“The NFL attempted to use its ‘unrestricted gift’ as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics,” the report stated.
The National Institutes of Health stood by its selection of Robert Stern and a group of researchers from Boston University. The NFL ultimately did not fund the $16 million study; the costs were instead absorbed by taxpayers, according to the report.
“The NFL’s troublesome interactions with NIH fit a long-standing pattern of attempts to influence the scientific understanding of degenerative diseases and sports-related head trauma,” Pallone said in a statement. “The NFL must recognize the importance of this ongoing, impartial research, and live up to its funding commitments to NIH.”
The report, first obtained by ESPN on Monday morning, resulted from an investigation launched in December after ESPN reported the NFL had backed out of the seven-year study aimed at finding ways to detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy in living patients.
The NFL responded to questions posed by Congressional investigators, and league officials acknowledged expressing concerns “through the appropriate channels” about Stern but “categorically reject any suggestion of improper influence,” Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman, said.
In its written response to a Congressional inquiry, the NFL said it followed proper protocols in raising concerns about Stern’s group and that the Foundation for NIH (FNIH), a nonprofit responsible for directing donations to NIH projects, ultimately opted to use taxpayer dollars. According to the report, the NFL felt the “back-and-forth over the grants process was hardly unusual.”
The report stated, however, that Walter Koroshetz, who directs the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) for the NIH, “was aware of no other instance where a donor raised objections to a grantee prior to the issuance of a notice of grant award.”
Besieged by uncertainties surrounding concussions, the NFL struck an agreement with the NIH on an unconditional $30 million donation in September 2012. Two years later, researchers began submitting grant proposals for the bulk of those funds: a “longitudinal study of individuals with a ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ diagnosis of [CTE] using brain imaging and other biomarkers.”
In May 2015, Stern’s group was selected. The previous year, Stern, a prominent researcher in the area, had submitted a lengthy statement in support of players who opposed the settlement of the concussion-related class action lawsuit. In the eyes of the NFL, that compromised his objectivity.
Elliott Pellman, the league’s former medical director who has been roundly criticized for his response on concussions over the years, sent an email in June 2015 to Maria Freire, the executive director of FNIH, saying, “there are many of us who have significant concerns re BU and their ability to be unbiased and collaborative.”
“I’m hoping that you could communicate our concerns and slow down the process until we all have a chance to speak to figure this out,” wrote Pellman, who no longer serves on any NFL committees but still performs administrative functions related to health and safety for the league.
Freire forwarded the email to Koroshetz, assuring him that “our process was not tainted and all above board.”
“Trouble is of course is that the group is led by the people who first broke the science open and NFL owners and leadership think of them as the creators of the problem,” she wrote.
On June 29, 2015, the NFL, NIH, and FNIH held a conference call to discuss the matter, according to the Congressional report. The NFL had four representatives on the call, including Richard Ellenbogen, who was part of an unsuccessful application for the grant money that included three members of the NFL head, neck and spine committee. Ellenbogen also placed a separate call to Koroshetz to voice his concerns.
According to the Congressional report, Ellenbogen told Koroshetz “that Dr. Stern had a conflict of interest and that the grant application process had been tainted by bias.”
The Congressional report stated the Ellenbogen never should have participated in these discussions because they violate “the spirit of the NIH conflict of interest rules, which are designed to ensure that individuals who have a financial interest in the outcome of a grant award are not involved in the decision-making process to award such a grant.”
Ellenbogen said the report mischaracterized his conversations and the core of the issue is a “scientific disagreement.” He said he was never questioned by Congressional staffers, and in an interview Monday, he repeatedly said he has no qualms with the Boston University group and simply argued for a different type of study that tracks the impact concussions have over many years.
“The whole idea there’s a conflict of interest is ridiculous,” said Ellenbogen, a neurosurgeon and the chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Neurological Surgery. “I expressed my opinion as an American, not anything to do with the NFL. I told him that I talk to parents every day and I need to be able to answer their questions. We need a longitudinal study.”
Ellenbogen said he was listed as an adviser on the competing grant and “was not something that was financially beneficial to me or my department.”
In response to investigators’ questions, the league explained that members of the head, neck and spine committee serve on a volunteer basis and “their opinions and comments on scientific and medical issues . . . are their own and are not reviewed in advance by the NFL.”
The NIH was in limbo for several months, unsure whether the NFL would ultimately fund the study. Last October, Freire emailed Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president of health and safety, saying “this puts NINDS in a difficult budgetary situation because this is very large grant — a cost that was not expected to be paid by taxpayers’ dollars. . . . supporting the CTE study with taxpayer dollars means that NINDS will be unable to fund other meritorious research for several years.”
As a compromise, Freire suggested the NFL provide partial funding for the study: $2.58 million for the first year of research.
In a letter last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told investigators, “The NFL agreed and offered to make such a contribution in the amount of approximately $2 million, but NIH declined the offer, opting instead to focus on alternative projects to which funds committed by the NFL could be applied.”
Asked by Congressional staffers to explain its intrusion on the grant review and selection process, the league expressed concern with the type of study Stern’s researchers would undertake, whether the NIH abided by its own conflict of interest guidelines and whether Stern would be an unbiased researcher.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, said Monday the report’s findings “echo a pattern of conduct that we’ve been seeing in the NFL to minimize the impact of these head injuries.”
She pointed to the March congressional roundtable where Miller became the first senior league official to acknowledge a link between football and CTE.
DeGette said another hearing on the issue likely will be scheduled, and legislation could be drafted to address concerns raised in the report.
Stern’s study is expected to get underway and begin enrolling participants next month. Meanwhile, the NFL is again facing the perception that it doesn’t know how to properly handle health and safety issues. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, called the findings “another example of a league that is out of control.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.