University of Washington Investigating Dr. Richard Ellenbogen for Role in Attempting to Influence Government Grant

Dr. Richard Ellenbogen is now being investigated by his own university.

by Sean Newell
Jul 21 2016, 6:08pm

Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the co-chairman of the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine Committee, is now under investigation at the University of Washington, where he serves the chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery, for trying to influence the award of a government research grant as outlined in a Congressional report. The NFL had previously pledged $30 million to the National Institutes of Health, $16 million of which was earmarked for a study to detect CTE in living patients. In the May report, the Committee on Energy and Commerce found that Ellenbogen was a "primary advocate" against awarding the $16 million to a team led by Dr. Robert Stern—a neurodegenerative disease expert who has long been critical of the NFL—even though Ellenbogen's team was also in the running for the grant. Despite repeated meddling from Ellenbogen and the NFL, the award ultimately did go to Stern, and the league subsequently backed out of its agreement, leaving the cost to taxpayers.

In the wake of the congressional report, and further reporting by VICE Sports that showed an even longer history of meddling on Ellenbogen's and the NFL's part, the dean of UW's medical school, Dr. Paul Ramsey, requested the investigation into his colleague. Outside the Lines reached out to several different members of the medical community and their reaction to Ellenbogen's actions were nearly incredulous.

Tom Murray, president emeritus at the Hastings Center, a non-profit bioethics research institution, criticized Ellenbogen for attempting to influence the NIH in his role as an NFL adviser.

"This is a very big deal, very significant, something [Dr. Ellenbogen] should not have done," said Murray, who specializes in the ethics of sports-related research.

One anonymous researcher went even further:

"I can't imagine writing an email to a colleague trying to get another person in government fired; it's more or less unreal," said the researcher, who requested anonymity because of concerns about possible backlash from the NFL. "Is this the University of Washington's position -- that it's OK to do that, using the school's email, acting on [the NFL's] behalf?

"Everybody is talking about this. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my career."

UW acknowledged that they would be investigating Ellenbogen, but wouldn't provide many more details than that. Unsurprisingly, the NFL, via spokesman Brian McCarthy, issued a full-throated defense of their inside man, noting they were not considering a change at the top of the Head, Neck, and Spine Committee: "A man of esteemed merit, Dr. Ellenbogen has selflessly dedicated his life to science and service. He is a physician on the frontlines of this issue, every day working to advance the understanding, prevention and treatment of head injuries."

According to OTL, UW would have a wide-range of options should they find Ellenbogen acted improperly, including anything from a written reprimand, or asking that he resign from his position with the NFL.