The War On Science: The NFL Edition

Whenever you read about assaults on the scientific process, it’s safe to say you should always follow the money (boldface mine):

The league’s conduct with the NIH was strikingly similar: a deficient and false process, with an attempt to strong-arm a predetermined result. In 2012, the NFL pledged $30 million in a partnership with the NIH for the study of brain diseases, especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is deeply relevant to the health of its players. It agreed that the funds would be “governed by federal law” and by NIH policy, ensuring that the research would be independent and peer-reviewed.

But then the NIH decided to award $16 million to Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University, who had sided against the league in its billion-dollar concussion class-action suit.

The league tried to derail Stern’s study before the grant was even formally announced, according to the congressional report. The NFL’s medical director, Elliot Pellman, who was long ago discredited for ignoring mainstream concussion science, wrote to the director of the NIH foundation when he heard it was “close to signing off” on the award to Boston University.

“There are many of us who have significant concerns re BU and their ability to be unbiased and collaborative,” Pellman wrote.

Collaborative. That’s one word for the NFL’s approach to brain science. Another is “corrupt.”

That was just the start of the NFL’s attempt to pressure the NIH into depriving Stern of a grant. Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the “independent” co-chair of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine committee, made two calls to the NIH’s Dr. Walter Koroshetz, telling him outright that he wouldn’t recommend that the NFL honor its pledge if the money went to Stern, according to the congressional report. Ellenbogen had applied for the grant and been rejected, finishing second. Ellenbogen told USA Today that the calls were strictly about “protocols” of the study. But he had no business even picking up the phone.

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s head of health and safety, and other league medical advisors also assailed the NIH with calls and emails, trying to discredit Stern and suggesting the selection process had been flawed. Even though Stern’s proposal had been chosen after a lengthy peer review and evaluation.

The congressional report describes one impropriety after another. The NFL not only continually attempted to redirect grant money away from Stern and BU, but, conveniently, every one of its suggestions for redirecting the money had it going instead to the NFL’s own medical consultants.

NIH Director Francis Collins, to his everlasting credit, flatly rejected the NFL’s attempt to circumvent the process and steer money to its handpicked researchers. Collins told the league to keep its money. The study would be done by BU, and the NIH would pay for it alone.

That decision cost taxpayers about $16 million, and was worth every penny. The NFL’s financial commitment to brain research is not intended to expand knowledge of the impact of concussions, but to restrict it. According to the congressional report, “The NFL attempted to use its ‘unrestricted gift’ as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics.”

Sure, it’s $16 million that the NIH had to cough up. But that’s much cheaper than your typical football stadium….

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