NFL Responds to Congressional Report Findings of Attempted Influence on Concussion Study

The NFL and its scientists have responded to the congressional report claiming they tried to unduly influence scientific research.
May 24, 2016, 10:46pm

Roger Goodell and Richard Ellenbogen have responded to the congressional report that found the NFL, and Ellenbogen specifically, attempted to exert influence over a $16 million grant to the National Institutes of Health for a study on CTE. The report was released yesterday and found that the NFL repeatedly overstepped its bounds and ultimately backed out of its promise to fund the study because their handpicked group—which included Ellenbogen—was not awarded the study. Ellenbogen is the co-chair of the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine Committee, as well as the chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington, which recently received $2.5 million from the NFL to study concussions.

The report found that Ellenbogen was not only part of a group that missed out on the $16 million award, but also stepped in at least twice to suggest that the group that did get the grant—headed by Dr. Robert Stern at Boston University—was biased against the NFL. Specifically, calling him one of the NFL's "primary advocates," the report found that Ellenbogen called Dr. Walter Koroshetz at the NIH and told him that "he could not recommend that the NFL fund the BU study, because he believed that Dr. Stern had a conflict of interest and that the grant application process had been tainted by bias."

In response to the claims, Ellenbogen wrote a letter to the ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce denying...something. He does say of the claims contained in the report that "nothing could be further from the truth," but that's about it. Does he deny that he called up Dr. Koroshetz and told him he could not recommend Dr. Stern? He does not. Does he completely sidestep the facts that he holds a prominent position with the NFL and that his school and his department are the recipients of $2.5 million funding from the NFL? He does.

"To be clear, I am not and never have been paid by the NFL nor have I ever received funding through the research grant dollars in question. I am a physician on the front lines of this issue, treating kids and counseling parents every day on understanding concussions and repetitive head injury. I feel passionately that there is urgent work ahead to fill the tremendous gap in funding and support on this issue.

In a later interview with USA Today, Ellenbogen claims his phone calls to Koroshetz were to inform him of his belief in the need for "a longitudinal study on the effects of concussion and he never told Koroshetz not to give a $16 million grant to researchers at Boston University instead." This is obviously not what the report accused him of, but that's how the NFL is attacking this latest shitstorm it finds itself in: obfuscation and sleight of hand. Likewise, Roger Goodell responded to criticism in his usually aloof way.

"I take a much different position to that on several fronts," Goodell said. "One is our commitment to medical research is well documented. We made a commitment to the NIH. It is normal practice to have discussions back and forth with the NIH. We have several members that are advisors on our committees — Betsy Nagel, Rich Ellenbogen —who have had experience with NIH or worked with NIH. It is very important to continue to have that kind of dialogue through appropriate channels, which our advisors have. That's a standard practice. We have our commitment of $30 million to the NIH. We're not pulling that back one bit. We continue to focus on things our advisors believe are important to study. Ultimately it is the NIH's decision."

OK! Now that's a whole lot of horse manure in one paragraph so let's really suss this out.

The report found that the NFL violated policies put in place to prevent private donors from interfering with NIH-funded groups. The report also found that this was part of "long-standing pattern of attempts" made by the league to influence the studies. So, technically, I guess Goodell is kind of being honest when he says that "it is normal practice to have discussions back and forth with the NIH." Only problem is, that particular "standard practice" of the NFL's happens to be against the rules. Oops!

The NFL's commitment to letting the public know they are committed to medical research is well documented.

According to the report, the NFL agreed to the terms of the study in July of 2014 and promised $16,325,242 which was essentially the full budget for the study. When Dr. Stern's group was awarded the funding nearly a year later, the NFL began laying the ground work for backing out. By December of 2015, the NIH still did not know whether the NFL was going to make good on its promise. The report found that rather than just give the $16 million, the NFL offered $2 million for the study, and tried redirecting the original $16 million to fund a different study with their own group. With the obvious strings-attached nature of the NFL's involvement, the NIH said "thanks, but no thanks" to both.

Was that "Ultimately the NIH's decision?" In the universe the NFL operates in, it was.