The NFL Is Embroiled in a Concussion Research Funding Fiasco

December 22, 2015, 7:27 PM UTC
NFL NIH Study 2015
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28: Strong safety David Bruton #30 of the Denver Broncos is attended to by trainers after a play that would force him out of the game with a reported concussion during a game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 28, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Photograph by Doug Pensinger — Getty Images

The National Football League has backed out of funding a study on the relationship between football and brain trauma, according to ESPN.

Now, the seven-year, $16 million research initiative at Boston University will be funded solely by the National Institutes of Health, the report continues.

But ESPN’s report has been refuted by the NFL. Spokesperson Brian McCarthy told Fortune that the ESPN story is “inaccurate.”

“The NFL did not pull funding from the BU study. The NIH makes all funding decisions,” he added. “The NFL has no ‘veto power’ as part of its unrestricted $30 million grant to NIH.”

In the article, ESPN said that the league does retain veto power over projects, and exercised it in this instance. The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, which procures funding for the NIH, issued a statement on Tuesday saying it decided to “fund the study in its entirety,” and that “the NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study.”

The study is considered the next step in concussion-related research on sports that involve repetitive hits to the head, such as football and boxing, because it will attempt to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during life, according to a statement by Boston University. Previously, CTE—a degenerative disease that arises from repeated head trauma, and that has been linked to concussions sustained during games like football—could only be diagnosed in brain tissues after death.

“Diagnosis during life—that’s it,” said lead principal investigator Robert Stern, and professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine (MED). “We will be able to truly study issues of incidence and prevalence, examine risk factors, and develop methods to treat and prevent the disease.”

It is Stern’s involvement that allegedly caused much consternation in the league’s office, and led to the NFL’s decision not to fund the study, sources told ESPN. Stern was part of the research team at Boston University that found a bigger risk of alterations in brain development for players who played tackle football between the ages of 10 and 12 than for those who waited longer to start playing the game, according to PBS. This study is considered one of the first to link early exposure to repetitive head impacts and structural brain changes later in life.

Stern also filed a declaration in October last year opposing the NFL’s roughly $765 million-settlement with former players over their concussion-related lawsuit against the league. He wrote that the settlement denied compensation to some of the most severely disabled players. Stern is also featured prominently in the Frontline documentary League of Denial on the NFL’s response to concussion-related research.

The league has been accused in the past of ignoring the effects of concussions on a player’s brain and way of life, an issue that gained traction after the suicides of former players Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau, both who were found to have CTE. From 2003 to 2009, ESPN notes, a journal with reported ties to the NFL published research denying that football players get brain damage. In September, a study carried out in part by Boston University showed that 87 out of 91 deceased NFL players were found to have CTE.

The story of the first reported CTE-related study, published by pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, will also premiere on the big screen in Concussion, the movie starring Will Smith. The film will be released on Dec. 25.

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