The National Football League “improperly attempted to influence” how the National Institutes of Health chose a grant recipient for a $16 million study on concussion and brain trauma, according to a congressional report released Monday.
The grant, which was supposed to come out of a $30 million funding agreement from the NFL, was eventually awarded to Robert Stern at Boston University and funded by the NIH — but not before NFL-affiliated scientists, including one who had applied for the grant money himself, raised persistent concerns about the neutrality of Stern’s research.
All the while, the NFL maintained that its $30 million was an “unrestricted” grant, and that it had “no veto power” over how the money was spent. The money was to be given to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and disbursed through an NIH grant process.
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“While the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research,” the report stated. “The NFL attempted to use its ‘unrestricted gift’ as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics.”
That critic, Stern, had filed an affidavit in a class action lawsuit of NFL players against the league that was critical of the neuropsychological tests that the league would have used to determine how to compensate injured players.
The grant should have been announced last June, but just weeks before the announcement, Dr. Elliot Pellman, former chair of the NFL’s defunct mild traumatic brain injury committee and currently a medical administrator for the league, raised concerns.
“There are many of us who have significant concerns re BU and their ability to be unbiased and collaborative,” he wrote in an email to the FNIH. One of those concerned, according to the email, included Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, cochair of the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. Ellenbogen had also applied for the same grant. His proposal was not chosen.
The report, issued by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, is part of an ongoing investigation into the role the NFL played in the NIH’s grant-giving process in this case.
In a statement, an NFL spokesperson said that the league “rejects the allegations” in the report. The spokesperson said that concern “about the nature of the study in question and possible conflicts of interest” were raised “through appropriate channels.”
The report recommends the FNIH, the NIH, and the NFL ensure that they have a clear understanding of their roles for the remainder of their collaborative research.