NFL Reportedly Restricts ‘Unrestricted’ Funds For Important Brain Trauma Research

FILE — In this Nov. 8, 2015, file photo, Dallas Cowboys’ Sean Lee is assisted by team staff after suffering an unknown injury in the second half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in Arlington, Texas. Lee, the defensive leader, is dealig with concussion issues. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File) CREDIT: BRANDON WADE, AP
FILE — In this Nov. 8, 2015, file photo, Dallas Cowboys’ Sean Lee is assisted by team staff after suffering an unknown injury in the second half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in Arlington, Texas. Lee, the defensive leader, is dealig with concussion issues. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File) CREDIT: BRANDON WADE, AP

The NFL has blocked $16 million of its “unrestricted” grant money from being used to fund an extensive study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma, according to a report by ESPN’s Outside The Lines on Tuesday.

The league had previously donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to further research of brain injuries and has frequently cited this donation as proof that it is serious about concussion research and making the game of football safer.

But the NFL reportedly retained veto power over the use of the funds, and wasn’t satisfied that this particular study, which OTL called “one of the most ambitious studies yet on the relationship between football and brain disease,” was led by Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University who has been very critical of the NFL in the past.

Stern filed a 61-page rebuttal to the NFL’s settlement of a concussion lawsuit last year, and consulted with former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland before the star decided to retire early from the football due to his fear of brain disease.

A spokesperson for the league denied the ESPN story in a statement to ThinkProgress: “The NFL did not pull funding from the BU study. The NIH makes all funding decisions. The NFL has no ‘veto power’ as part of its unrestricted $30 million grant to NIH. In fact, the NFL in 2010 gave an unrestricted $1 million to Boston University for research into brain injuries.”

The NIH also released a statement saying the NFL funds are still in tact as part of the Sports and Health Research Program. “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,” it read.

The reporters for the ESPN piece, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, have been investigating and reporting on the NFL’s concussion crisis for years. In fact, they authored the book League of Denial, which was adapted into an award-winning PBS special examining the NFL’s failure to recognize the science of CTE. ESPN was originally involved in the League of Denial documentary, but reportedly withdrew support at the last minute due to pressure from the NFL.

“From 2003 to 2009, the NFL published its own research denying that football players get brain damage; much of that research was later discredited,” OTL reported on Tuesday. “But since then, the NFL has poured tens of millions of dollars into concussion research, allowing the league to maintain a powerful role on an issue that directly threatens its future.”

This particular study, which is still continuing on even without the NFL’s money, is a seven-year project that involves 50 researchers at 17 institutions and hundreds of former NFL and college players. It is being characterized as a big step towards figuring out how to detect and track CTE in living subjects, as so far, the disease can only be diagnosed posthumously.

On Christmas Day, the Will Smith film Concussion will be released in theaters nationwide. The movie tells the tale of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered CTE when doing the autopsy of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, and the NFL’s attempts to discredit him. Omalu’s mentor, Dr. Ron Hamilton, told ThinkProgress that he hoped that the film would lead to more awareness and therefore more research on the connection between football and brain injuries.