More than half of the $30 million that the National Football League (NFL) donated to NIH for brain research will expire, unspent, at the end of August, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru report for ESPN's "Outside the Lines."
According to "Outside the Lines," NIH officials in recent months decided to let the remaining funds—an estimated $16 million, "Outside the Lines" reports—that was included in the agreement expire, as scheduled, on Aug. 31, 2017. The decision followed a dispute in 2015 in which the NFL withdrew from a study that had been awarded to a scientist who had been critical of the organization, according to "Outside the Lines."
Clash over NFL's 'unrestricted gift'
NFL in September 2012 announced the $30 million "unrestricted gift" to NIH in the wake of the suicide of San Diego Chargers player Junior Seau. At the time, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell characterized the donation as a way to fund independent research into a possible link between football and brain damage. According to "Outside the Lines," NFL had denied such a connection for nearly two decades.
NIH said the money came "with no strings attached" and soon started awarding funding. The agency allocated two grants of $6 million each for a "comprehensive investigation" into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and doled out another $2 million in total to back six additional pilot studies.
However, NFL—which retained veto power over the funding awards—in 2015 took issue with NIH's decision to allocate $16 million to a team led by Robert Stern, director of clinical research for Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, according to "Outside the Lines." The money was to be used for learning how to detect CTE in living patients. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death.
Several NFL health officials sought to have NIH rescind the award, according to "Outside the Lines." And in 2016, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report concluding that even though NFL had signed an agreement with NIH, NFL backed out of funding the study when it learned Stern would lead the project. According to the report, NFL made a last-minute offer to donate $2 million, which NIH Director Francis Collin declined.
However, NFL has publicly denied that it withheld funding, "Outside the Lines" reports. It said the NIH selection process was compromised by Stern's bias as well as a reviewer's conflict of interest. NFL said it intended to fund part of the study but was told that NIH would fund the research with public dollars.
Republican lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested an independent review of the dispute, but according to "Outside the Lines," the status of that investigation is "unclear."
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Where things stand
Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru report that a statement NIH released Thursday, as well as previous comments from agency officials and information sources provided to "Outside the Lines," "all point to the NIH severing its ties to the NFL."
NIH in the statement said, "The NFL's agreement with (the funding arm of the NIH) ends Aug. 31, 2017, and there are no current research plans for the funds remaining from the original $30 million NFL commitment." According to the statement, "NIH is currently funding concussion research directly."
Further, the statement said, "If (the) NFL wishes to continue to support research at NIH, a simple donation to the NIH Gift Fund to support research on sports medicine would be favorably viewed, as long as the terms provided broad latitude in decisions about specific research programs."
However, NFL in response to a letter last week from ranking Democrats on House Energy and Commerce Committee, said league officials are "engaged in constructive discussions" with NIH's fundraising arm "regarding potential new research projects and the remaining funds of our $30 million commitment." The letter came one day after a study was published showing that out of 111 former NFL players studied, 110 had evidence of neurodegenerative disease—a study that was funded by one of the two $6 million grants NIH allocated from the NFL donation, "Outside the Lines" reports.
According to "Outside the Lines," NIH's Thursday statement does not note any ongoing discussions with the NFL (Fainaru-Wada/Fainaru, "Outside the Lines," ESPN, 7/28).
Caring for concussion patients
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