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NFL reportedly withdraws funding for CTE study

The league reportedly had an issue with the objectivity of the lead researcher.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has elected to renege on its agreement to help fund a National Institutes of Health study of the relationship between brain disease and football, according to a report from ESPN's Outside the Lines.

At the heart of the issue is the $30 million grant the NFL handed the NIH in 2012, $16 million of which was going to be used to fund a Boston University study that will attempt to discover how to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients. Robert Stern, a Boston University professor of neurology and neurosurgery, will lead the study. It was his appointment that caused the league to balk, sources to Outside the Lines.

The NFL attempted to use its veto power when it became aware that Stern would be leading the CTE study, claiming that he was not an objective choice.

A league spokesperson denied the ESPN report that the NFL had pulled the funding, adding that the league did not have veto power over how the money was spent.

Stern, who is the director of clinical research for Boston University's Alzheimer's Disease and CTE centers, has been critical of the NFL in the past. He's accused the NFL of "covering up" the connection between football and brain disease and has advised players, such as former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, of the dangers of the sport.

"As a scientist I have always and will always conduct research with complete impartiality," Stern said to Outside the Lines. "If I say things about the NFL or others that may sound negative, that has nothing to do with the impartiality of my science."

In 2014, an NIH official told Outside the Lines that NFL's $30 million gift was contingent on the league being able to veto decisions on projects that the money was funding.

"Up until now they have controlled every dollar that they have spent on this issue," Eric Nauman, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Purdue University who has published research on the dangers on repetitive head trauma that playing football leads to, told Outside the Lines. "There was no way they were going to just give that money to the NIH and say, 'Do whatever you want."

Hundreds of former NFL and college players will participate in the Boston University study. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death, which has been the case with 87 former players over the past decade.

This report comes days before the release of the film Concussion, starring Will Smith, which tells the story of  Dr. Bennet Omalu, who, as a coroner, was the first scientist to discover brain damage in a former NFL player.

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