Last December, Outside the Lines reported that the NFL reportedly backed out of a $16 million gift to fund a concussion study because it didn't like the man heading the research. The NFL has repeatedly denied that it had personal issues with the researcher, Robert Stern. On Monday, a 91-page congressional report revealed otherwise.
OTL released details of a congressional investigation, which found that the league campaigned to remove Stern, who had been critical of the NFL, and pulled its funding after signing an agreement, forcing taxpayers to bear the brunt of the study's cost.
When the NFL gave a $30 million gift to the National Institute of Health in 2012, it was initially reported as "unrestricted." That was never the case, as NIH officials later clarified. The NFL holds veto power over the projects that the money funds.
After the NIH tabbed Stern, a prominent researcher at Boston University, the league pressured the institute to remove him and steer the money towards league-sanctioned researchers. When the NIH held firm, the NFL broke the agreement and offered just $2 million towards the study, according to the congressional report. The NIH declined the gesture.
The NFL then tried to reallocate the $16 million to a study involving members of the league's brain injury committee. That committee's co-chairman, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, had been one of the "primary advocates" for removing Stern, according to the congressional report. He had applied for the same grant that the NIH awarded Stern.
"Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL adviser," the report states. "He had been part of a group that applied for the $16 million grant. After his group was not selected, Dr. Ellenbogen became one of the NFL's primary advocates in expressing concerns surrounding the process with the BU grant selection. ... This series of events raises significant questions about Dr. Ellenbogen's own bias."
The NIH exercised its say over the money and refused to give it to the NFL's committee, which would not have followed the institute's same rigorous peer review process.
OTL goes even further into detail of the congressional report, including emails and phone calls that discredit the NFL's claim that it wasn't concerned about Stern's alleged biases. The biggest takeaway is exactly how purposeful the NFL's attempts to appear stupid seem to be. From omitting more than 100 concussions from its own study to dictating the use of its "gift," few people haven't noticed. Several players acknowledged OTL's report and followed up with their own questions and concerns:
The thing about concussions is that I want to know the truth...I'm still going to play but I need to know what could happen— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) May 23, 2016
Amount of players mentioning story--as evidenced here--is interesting to me. Stars' voices are crucial going forward pic.twitter.com/bOcQ9tLkOY— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) May 23, 2016
The authors of the report held little back, calling the NFL's actions part of a "long-standing pattern of attempts" to conduct concussion research that would serve its own interests. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone from New Jersey told OTL that the NFL's actions would sow even more distrust among players, saying, "It says to them that they really can't trust the NFL to do the right thing."
The NFL rejected the allegations in a lengthy statement that otherwise didn't delve deeply into specifics.
Monday's report was another indication that the NFL's reserves of good faith are running low. It created a deficit from what was once a boon of social capital -- the NFL's $30 million donation to the NIH in 2012 was its largest ever. Now the best thing the league ever did to address brain trauma looks like a con.
It's difficult to understand what the NFL is afraid of. A few players may stop playing if a good faith attempt to study concussions results in even more damning evidence, but a lot more won't. Likewise, the NFL isn't likely to suddenly lose all of the fans who have been following this very violent sport for decades.
At this point, refusing to be forthright may only hurt. The NFL didn't stop Stern's study from happening -- it'll start next week, and the findings will likely make national headlines. The NFL only has to decide whether it wants to go with or stand rooted against the tide. One of those options will hurt a lot less when the waves finally crash.