NFL’s ‘unrestricted’ grant to fund brain research has strings attached
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When the National Football League announced a $30 million donation to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to fund research on concussion and brain trauma, the league called the grant an “unrestricted gift.”

But it turns out there were strings attached.

Before spending the money, the foundation must reach “mutual agreement” with the NIH and its donors — including the NFL — on the “research concepts” that will be addressed, as well as on “timeline, budget, and specific milestones to accomplish the research,” according to a signed agreement obtained by STAT.

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The agreement also commits the foundation to set up a “stakeholder board” to let the NFL and other donors talk with the NIH’s scientific leadership to “express viewpoints, address challenges, share expertise, and develop common perspectives on issues relating” to the research.

NFL NIH Agreement

Neither the foundation or the NFL responded to multiple requests for comment.

ESPN reported late last month that the NFL refused to allow its donation to be used to pay for an ambitious national research project on the degenerative brain disease known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The project is being led by Boston University’s Robert Stern, a prominent CTE researcher. Stern’s colleague at the university runs a “brain bank” whose researchers have diagnosed CTE in scores of former NFL players.

The NFL strenuously denied the ESPN report, saying it had no “veto power” over how the foundation spends its $30 million gift, which was announced back in February of 2013.

The foundation also denied the report, saying “the NFL has no control over the use of these grant funds.”

But the document obtained by STAT through a public records request seems to contradict those assertions.

It’s a memorandum of understanding between the NIH and the foundation, a nonprofit set up to work with the private sector to supplement federal funding for scientific research.

The agreement specifically concerns the Sports and Health Research Program, which was launched in 2013 with the $30 million NFL grant. The NFL said at the time it expected the money would be spent on cutting-edge research into brain trauma, as well as studies of other health issues that afflict athletes.

Alex Hogan, Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

The agreement makes clear that the NIH will take charge of managing and implementing any scientific research funded by outside donations, including the NFL grant. But before that research can even get off the ground, the NIH and the foundation must seek “mutual agreement” with its donors on the scope and goals of the project.

So far, the NFL money has been used to support several small research projects on spinal cord injury and a larger project on CTE with Boston University and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. That project is focusing on understanding the prevalence of CTE and how it can be diagnosed during autopsy.

The new national CTE research —  the one not funded by the NFL —  aims to figure out how to diagnose CTE in living patients.

Four congressional Democrats this week demanded more information about the NFL’s role in funding brain trauma research.

“We are concerned about the potential implications of outside entities expecting to exercise ‘veto power’ or other influence over the selection of NIH research applicants,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., Gene Green, Jan Schakowsky, and Diana DeGette wrote in a letter sent to the NIH and the foundation. All four signatories are Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The letter was first reported by the Washington Post.

The NIH said its director, Dr. Francis Collins, had received the letter and that the agency will respond. 

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