NFL, NIH dispute ESPN report that league pulled funding for BU concussion study

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before an NFL football game.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before an NFL football game. –Jim Mone/AP

Tuesday morning, ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a story, citing sources, stating that the National Football League pulled funding for a Boston University study researching the relationship between football and brain disease.

ESPN’s story came the same day as an announcment from the university on a seven-year, $16 million initiative attempting to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients. The school’s press release did not mention the NFL, because the NFL is not funding the study. ESPN’s sources say the NFL’s decision not to fund the project delayed the official announcement of the study for months.


An NFL spokesman took to Twitter Tuesday denying the ESPN report.

When contacted directly by ESPN, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy added, “The NIH makes its own funding decisions.’’

Later Tuesday, the NIHreleased a statement

seemingly agreeing with the NFL’s sentiment that it was the health charity, and not the league, that made the decision.

Through the Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP) —a partnership among the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Football League (NFL), and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)—multiple studies have been and will continue to be funded to examine traumatic brain injury in athletes. The NFL funding commitment to SHRP remains intact. NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. Stern. NIH made the decision to fund this study in its entirety and to issue a Request for Applications (RFA) early next year to support an additional study on CTE using funds from SHRP, which will double the support for research in this area.

The two statements stand in contrast to the ESPN report not in the end result — the NFL is not funding the study — but in the process it took to get there. According to Outside the Lines, the NFL had initially announced in 2012 it would not have the final say on fund allocation, but two years later, the league continued to hold veto power over which projects were funded.

From the “Outside the Lines’’ report:

Sources told Outside the Lines that the league exercised that power when it learned that Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University, would be the project’s lead researcher. The league, sources said, raised concerns about Stern’s objectivity, despite an exhaustive vetting process that included a “scientific merit review’’ and a separate evaluation by a dozen high-level experts assembled by the NIH.

Stern has been critical of the NFL, and opposed the NFL’s concussion settlement. The NFL did, however, allow $6 million of the NIH fund to go to Dr. Ann McKee, who has also been critical of the NFL and has studied and written about CTE.

“We want facts,’’ NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of concussion research on “60 Minutes’’ in November. “The facts will help us develop better solutions. And that’s why we’re advancing medical research. That’s why we’re funding directly to Boston University on some of this research.’’


The bacn and forth comes days before the release of the movie, ‘Concussion,’ which chronicles the NFL’s years of criticism and attempted silencing of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE.

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