The National Institutes of Health seems to have discovered what communities across the land already know: The National Football League is an untrustworthy partner.
According to a report released Monday by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the NFL pressured the NIH to cancel a $16-million grant to study football-related brain injuries to a prominent Boston brain researcher who the league claimed was biased. The NIH had found no evidence that the researcher, Robert Stern, was biased or subject to a conflict of interest. The House staff agreed. On the other hand, it did assert a conflict of interest on the part of one NFL medical advisor, who applied unsuccessfully for the same grant and then became a leading critic of the award to Stern.
An NFL spokesman said Monday: "We are reviewing the report, but categorically reject any suggestion of improper influence."
The league did, however, withdraw almost all its funding for the NIH study, forcing the agency to find the money in its own budget. As an NIH fundraising official told the league, this put the agency in a bind, for the research study had been predicated on funding from the NFL. Because the agency was already committed to the grant but the NFL reneged, she said last October, the agency "will be unable to fund other meritorious research for several years."
The episode underscores the perils that arise when government agencies solicit and accept private donations for projects that should be publicly funded. Sometimes the arrangements are innocuous. But when a private donor puts up money for research in which it has a manifest interest -- as when the NFL funds a study on head trauma in football -- red flags should be flying.
The National Institutes of Health, which has been starved by years of skinflint funding by Congress, thought it had pathways to avert the potential pitfalls. Congress in 1990 established the nonprofit Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to accept outside donations and funnel them to projects the NIH initiated. NIH policy explicitly barred any attempt by donors to interfere with the agency's responsibilities or "otherwise exert real or potential influence in grant or contract decision-making."
Yet the rules didn't reckon with the NFL. For that's exactly what the league tried to do.
As outlined by the committee staff, the story began in 2012, when the foundation announced that it had snared a $30-million pledge from the NFL to support research on "serious medical conditions prominent in athletes." These included concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CPE, the debilitating syndrome that seems to have afflicted an excessive number of former NFL players, contributing to dementia, depression and other neurological conditions.
The funding was to be "unrestricted," meaning the NIH could use the money as it saw fit. That, at least, was how it was described in an NFL news release. But the NFL was allowed to place two representatives on a "stakeholder board" to help develop research priorities. And its funding was to be handed over in installments, and only after any specific research plan had been jointly approved by the NFL, the NIH and the foundation.
Everything went smoothly. Four research plans were approved. Then problems erupted with the fifth, involving CTE. The syndrome is an especially sensitive subject for the league, as it's at the center of the nearly $1-billion settlement that the league reached with former players in 2013 who had sued over concussion injuries. This research program was to cost $17.5 million, of which the league's share was $16.3 million.
In 2015, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke picked Boston University's Stern, a leading CTE expert, as the grant recipient. Within weeks, the NFL started to protest, questioning the BU group's "ability to be unbiased and collaborative."
NINDS Director Walter Koroshetz wasn't surprised, according to the committee report. "I knew this was coming," he told a foundation official by email. "Trouble is of course that the group is led by the people who first broke the science open and NFL owners and leadership think of them as the creators of the problem."
Among the NFL's objections was that Stern had testified in opposition to the settlement of the players' lawsuit, stating in a declaration that it set too high a bar for determinations that players suffered CTE and thus should be compensated. The league also complained that members of the panel reviewing the grant applications had co-authored articles with members of Stern's research group, suggesting this was a conflict of interest. As it happened, however, one of the NFL's own medical advisors who objected to Stern, Richard Ellenbogen, had applied for the grant and lost out to Stern.
The NIH concluded that no conflicts existed and the selection of Stern was clean. After that, the NFL backed off funding the full $16 million. Instead, it put up only $2 million to cover the CTE study's first year.
To the committee staff, the fault in this case belongs almost entirely to the NFL. The league, it found, "improperly attempted to influence ... grant selection" and injected itself into decision-making it should have known was "out of bounds for donors."
The staff discovered the same gulf between the NFL's public statements and its behind-the-scene maneuvering that has become familiar to communities that thought they had a deal with the league, only to discover that it was built on quicksand.
"Despite their stated intention to 'let the science go where the science goes' in answering critical safety questions," the staff report states, "the NFL's actions in this case indicated otherwise."