NFL ends concussion research partnership $16 million short of $30 million commitment

The “unrestricted gift” came with too many strings for the National Institute of Health.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady pose during a news conference after the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, in Houston. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Back in 2012, the NFL made a heavily publicized $30 million commitment to the National Institute of Health to fund concussion research, which the league wanted the public to see as a commitment it was taking head safety in football seriously.

But as ESPN’S Outside the Lines reported this week, that partnership is set to expire next month even though the NFL — which is projected to reach $14 billion in revenue this year — failed to give the NIH $16 million of the promised funds. In other words, the league fulfilled less than half of its obligations to the NIH.

“The NFL’s agreement with [the funding arm of the NIH] ends August 31, 2017, and there are no current research plans for the funds remaining from the original $30 million NFL commitment,” the NIH said in a statement.

The relationship between the NFL and the NIH has been a contentious one from the start. In 2015, Outside the Lines reported that even though the gift had reportedly been unrestricted, the NFL restricted the NIH from using $16 million of its $30 million grant to fund a Boston University study on the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease thought to be caused by repeated subconcussive hits to the head.

The NFL reportedly objected to the fact that Dr. Robert Stern, the director of clinical research at the BU CTE Center, was leading the study, because he has always been very publicly critical of how the NFL has handled concussions. Outside the Lines found that the NFL instead steered its funds to doctors who currently or previously worked closely with the league. (The NIH ended up donating the funds for the study by itself; the NFL denied that it ever attempted to restrict the NIH funds.)

That 2015 Outside the Lines report triggered an investigation by the Democratic lawmakers on the House of Representative Committee on Energy and Commerce. Last year, that investigation concluded that the NFL did indeed act “improperly in attempting to influence the outcome” of the grant-selection process at the NIH.

Earlier this week, things seemed to come to a head when Democratic lawmakers on the House Committee of Energy and Commerce wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asking whether the NFL was going to fulfill the remaining $16 million of its research funds to the NIH. On Wednesday, the NFL indicated that it did still tend to honor its commitments and was engaged in “constructive discussions” with the institute.

But, according to ESPN, the NIH decided months ago to let the agreement expire with more than half of the funds unused because of the 2015 controversy.

“If [the] NFL wishes to continue to support research at NIH, a simple donation to the NIH Gift Fund to support research on sports medicine would be favorably viewed, as long as the terms provided broad latitude in decisions about specific research programs,” the NIH said in a statement to ESPN.

On Tuesday, researchers from Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System published a study that found CTE in 110 of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players.

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