House Report Finds NFL Attempted to Circumvent Funding for CTE Research

By Joseph M. Hanna, of Goldberg Segalla

A recent house report from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr. found that the NFL attempted to improperly sway the direction of its $30 million donation to the National Institute of Health (NIH). The report, released on Monday, May 23, 2016, confirms previous ESPN reports positing the NFL may be exerting inappropriate influence on the grant process for scientific studies into CTE.

Back in 2012, the NFL promised the NIH a $30 million donation to support research of serious medical conditions prominent in athletes. Under the parties’ agreement the NIH had exclusive control as the NFL “did not reserve the right to weigh in on the grant selection process” which harmonized with the NIH’s policy opposing donor’s from having any control in the decision-making of grant applications. The NIH decided to use the NFL’s donation to fund Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University’s CTE study. However, the NFL objected to use of their donation to that particular study. According to the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee Stern was an avid advocator for football’s connection to brain trauma and therefore had a conflict of interest or, at the very least, was bias. The report found that the NFL should not have intervened at all as, once the research plan was signed, it was improper for any NFL staff to influence the grant selection process of the NIH.

This investigation began on December 22, 2015 when ESPN’s Outside the Lines began a series of investigative articles outlining the league’s objections to use of their donations for particular CTE studies. Shortly after publication, Democratic members of the Committee began their investigation into whether the NFL had acted inappropriately in attempting to exercise influence. The key findings of their investigation include: overall the NFL improperly attempted to influence the grant selection process at NIH; NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee members played an inappropriate role in attempting to influence the outcome of the grant selection process; NFL’s objections to the Boston University study were unfounded; NFL did not carry out its commitment to respect the science and prioritize health and safety. The NFL did not dispute the findings opting to defend its actions stating its concerns were raised “through the appropriate channels” while reiterating their commitment to accelerating scientific advancements in the area. In the end, NIH did award Stern the grant, but instead used funds from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes donation.

This report is the latest in a saga which may impact the scientific understanding of sports related brain trauma.

 

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Former NFL Pro-Bowler, Actor Bubba Smith Diagnosed with CTE

The Concussion Legacy Foundation reports thatBubba Smith, a two-time NFL Pro Bowl defensive end, College Football Hall of Famer, and the first overall pick of the 1967 National Football League (NFL) draft was diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) after his death by researchers affiliated with the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs, Boston University.

Smith began his NFL career with the Baltimore Colts (1967–1971), where he was a member of the Super Bowl V championship team, then played for the Oakland Raiders (1973–1974), and finally the Houston Oilers (1975–1976). He was an All-American defensive end at Michigan State University and was part of the famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame in 1966 that was billed the “Game of the Century.”Smith, who died in 2011 at age 66, is among the 90 of 94 former NFL players diagnosed with CTE since 2008 at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. He had stage 3 CTE out of a 4 stage severity, with 4 being the most advanced and usually associated with dementia. Prior to his death, Smith was reported to have developed significant cognitive decline, including memory impairment and poor judgment. He was also unable to complete many tasks of daily living on his own, such as paying bills, shopping, or traveling. The findings are now being released by the representative of his estate Elias Goldstein to raise awareness of CTE. Smith had no children, no surviving siblings, and was not married at the time of his death.

Last month was the 50th iteration of the modern NFL draft. Bubba Smith was the first overall pick in 1967 draft, the first draft to take place after the NFL and American Football League (AFL) merger.

“CTE is an important discussion within the context of the NFL draft and rookie minicamps,” said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and president of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “Despite its perception as an NFL problem, our team has also identified 45 cases of CTE in former college players. While we discuss and celebrate the future of former college players preparing for their first year in the NFL, we need to also discuss that CTE may be part of that future. It is time for entire football community to rally behind the research aimed at accelerating a cure for CTE.”

Smith was a teammate of Hall of Famers Ken Stabler, who it was announced in February had CTE when he died in 2015, and John Mackey, who was diagnosed with CTE after his death in 2011. Since then, Former Oakland Raiders George Atkinson, Phil Villapiano, George Buehler and Art Thoms, all former teammates of both Stabler and Smith, have pledged their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation as part of My Legacy, which encourages athletes to leave their legacy by helping solve the concussion crisis through brain donation or other means.

Last month VA Secretary Robert McDonald pledged to donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, joining NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. and soccer legend Brandi Chastain among over 1,100 others. The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the largest sports concussion and CTE repository in the world with over 330 brains donated and over 200 cases confirmed, comprising an estimated 75% of the confirmed CTE cases globally.

In December the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave a seven-year, $16 million dollar grant aimed at learning to diagnose CTE in living athletes to a consortium of 10 leading universities led by principal investigator Dr. Robert Stern, professor of neurology, neurosurgery and anatomy at Boston University School of Medicine, and three co-principal investigators from the Cleveland Clinic, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

For more information on donating to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank or to get involved, visit: concussionfoundation.org/get-involved

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Ban on Heading for Youth Soccer Stirs Controversy

(Editor’s note: The following story was written by Amanda Atwell for Reporting Texas (http://reportingtexas.com), news and features from the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, and is reprinted here with permission.)

Lindsey Meyer has played soccer since she was 4 years old.  The midfielder for the University of Texas at Austin women’s team has never suffered a concussion from heading the ball.

The United States Soccer Federation last November adopted new rules that ban heading in games played by children. Meyer says she couldn’t disagree more: the new rule, she fears, could hurt the development of talented players, and could cause players to be more afraid of heading than they already are.

Meyer and other critics of the ban say it will delay the instruction of proper heading technique. She said it might dissuade young players from wanting to use heading when they get older, because they think it’s unsafe. Some critics say the ban could factor into youth-game strategies that could undermine the integrity of the game.

Heading, in which players redirect an oncoming ball with their heads, is a key element of soccer. But it means that players’ heads come into contact with balls at high speeds, potentially causing concussions. Opinions on the ban are divided in the soccer world. Supporters such as Brandi Chastain, a former U.S. Women’s National Team member believe heading doesn’t need to be taught under the age of 14, and that younger children should be learning basic foot skills and the foundations of soccer.

The change follows a 2014 class action lawsuit filed against U.S. Soccer and FIFA in California by parents demanding a change in how the sport handles concussions. The lawsuit was dropped after U.S. Soccer adopted the new rules, which prohibit players under age 10 from heading the ball and limits heading to practice for players 11 to 13. In a statement last November, U.S. Soccer said changes to the youth game to limit concussions were in the works long before the lawsuit.

“In constructing the concussion component, U.S. Soccer sought input from its medical science committee which includes experts in the field of concussion diagnosis and management, as well as from its technical advisors, and worked with its youth members to develop a true consensus-based program,” U.S. Soccer CEO General Dan Flynn said.

Meyer,  a 22-year-old senior who grew up in Coppell, sides with critics who say banning heading at a young age could cause players to fear heading later on in their soccer careers, when the practice becomes an essential part of the game.  Meyer said she thinks the rule could limit the development of players’ ability to head the ball – a skill that many struggle with even after years of practice.

“I have collegiate friends that hate heading the ball,” Meyer said. “And if they had this rule when they were young, they probably for sure would not head the ball now.”

Paul Gallagher, a North Texas youth soccer coach and the founder of the Odyssey Soccer Club, said he doesn’t believe the regulation will have a significant effect on player’s skill development. Gallagher focuses on developing young players’ footwork at his twice-a-week practices.

“Our time as a coach is a lot more useful spent working on their feet and not on their head at 10 years of age,” Gallagher said. “You build a foundation of foot skills and tactics, and everything else can be built on top of that.”

But Gallagher said he thinks some coaches might exploit the new rule to help their teams, depending on how it’s enforced. If a game is stopped because a player headed the ball and the other team got possession, teams could try to force opponents to head the ball to gain an advantage.

“If the rule is that a player can’t head the ball, coaches could tell their players to throw the ball towards [opponents’] heads,” Gallagher said. He said some coaches might think, “We throw the ball right at them; if the player heads the ball, we get a PK (penalty kick). If they duck, well, then we’re in behind them anyway.”

Sarah Fields, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, specializes in sports-related injuries. She conducted a study on how heading the ball affects high-school soccer players, and the results don’t support the new rule.

“While a large portion of concussions occur during the act of heading, the mechanism or cause, far more frequently than the ball, was another player,” such as elbows to the face or colliding with another player’s head, Fields said.

Players more often get concussions from elbows to the face or colliding with another player’s head. The increasingly aggressive nature was to blame for concussions – not the contact with the ball itself.

Discouraging heading could lead to players not being trained to execute them properly. That, combined with increasingly aggressive play, could result in injuries. Fields doesn’t completely disagree with the rule, but said tighter refereeing — such as calling more fouls — could have a bigger impact on reducing injuries.

“I think not knowing what you’re doing puts you at a greater risk, and it puts your opponent at a greater risk,” Fields said. “You go up with your eyes shut, then you’re panicked and you flail. You’re going to hit somebody, and nothing good is going to come of that.”

Meyer, the Texas midfielder, said heading is a crucial component of the game and training should start early.

“Heading is something you need to learn at a young age, because it’s so important to the game of soccer,” she said.

 

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