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.