The NFL Initiative to Fund Brain Research May Be Ending

The league's partnership with the National Institutes of Health has been, in a word, messy.

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Jul 31 2017, 8:57pm

A messy partnership between the federal government's research arm and the National Football League is coming to a less-than-amicable end, amid claims the NFL broke its promise to remain hands-off.

The National Institutes of Health is unceremoniously concluding its five-year-long funding arrangement with the NFL this August, despite having used less than half of the $30 million first pledged to it by the league in 2012 to research brain disease, ESPN reports. The shunning comes in the wake of allegations the NFL tried to influence how its donation—publicized as an unrestricted gift that would fund NIH research on how concussions could affect football players—was spent. It's estimated that about $16 million will be left on the table.

"The NFL's agreement with [the funding arm of the NIH] ends August 31, 2017, and there are no current research plans for the funds remaining from the original $30 million NFL commitment," the NIH said in a statement to ESPN. "NIH is currently funding concussion research directly."

The rift between the NIH and NFL began soon after the initial round of grants was allocated, as a report from the House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce in 2016 alleged. One of the grants was given to a team of Boston University scientists headed by Robert Stern, a neuroscientist long critical of the league; he hoped to be able to find chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in living patients as the brain disorder linked to repetitive head injuries currently can only be diagnosed post-mortem. In response, researchers affiliated with the NFL repeatedly tried to pressure members of the NIH's funding arm over email to rescind that grant money or steer it elsewhere, citing concerns that the team couldn't be "unbiased and collaborative."

These warnings didn't impact the ongoing research itself, which is meant to look at current and former players with a history of concussions over a long period and compare their brain health to a control group: The dispute eventually led the NIH to entirely fund the $17 million-study themselves. The NFL did make a last-minute offer of $2 million but NIH director Francis Collins turned it down. Since then, both the NIH and NFL have seemingly declined opportunities to work together on other projects.

"The NFL's interactions with NIH and approach to funding the BU study fit a longstanding pattern of attempts to influence the scientific understanding of the consequences of repeated head trauma," concluded the congressional report, authored by senior House member Frank Pallone. A Republican-led congressional investigation of the dust-up was announced last September, but there's been no public update on the status of that review. Shortly thereafter, the league announced that it would spend $100 million on its own concussion research as well as engineering advancements and safety initiatives.

The NFL has steadfastly denied it did anything wrong and it downplayed the appearance of any bad blood with the NIH. In response to a letter filed by Pallone and other Democratic legislators, the league said last week it was "engaged in constructive discussions" to continue working with the NIH to fund concussion research, including using "the remaining funds of [its] $30 million commitment;" the response came two days before ESPN's latest report.

Meanwhile, that same Boston University team continues to be a thorn in the NFL's side. Last week, they published a study showing that the donated brains of more than 200 deceased football players, both professional and amateur, were overwhelmingly likely to show signs of CTE. Though the study has its caveats and doesn't indicate how common CTE might be among all NFL players with or without cognitive symptoms, it is only the latest to suggest that playing football is linked to behavioral and memory problems.

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