Congressional reps: Can NFL veto funding NIH brain research?

BySteve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada ESPN logo
Friday, January 8, 2016

Four Congressional Democrats are requesting information about the NFL's $30 million grant to the National Institutes of Health, in response to an Outside the Lines report that the league withheld funding for an ambitious NIH study on football and brain disease.

The legislators say they're concerned that the NFL retains "veto power" or other influence over the selection of NIH research projects. Sources told Outside the Lines last month that the league balked at funding the project over concerns about the lead researcher, Boston University's Robert Stern, who has been critical of the NFL's handling of the concussion issue.

A league spokesman described the story then as "inaccurate" and said the NIH controlled all funding decisions. A spokeswoman for the Foundation for the NIH -- a separate, non-profit organization that raises private money for NIH research -- also said the league had no influence.

However, audited FNIH financial statements describe the league's gift as a "conditional contribution" that allows the NFL to cancel the funding. The previously unreported statements, posted on the organization's website, list the NFL's donation under contributions "subject to donor conditions." Although those conditions are not specified, the NFL grant is one of several described as "conditioned upon meeting certain milestones and/or the funder not canceling."

"If you're going to actually have research that's independent, it can't be independent if there's strings attached," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who co-signed letters requesting information from the FNIH and NIH.

The letters were first reported by The Washington Post.

Informed that the NFL gift was described as "conditional" in the audited statements, Pallone said: "That's very surprising to me, and that's one of the concerns that I have here."

Dr. Walter Koroshetz, the director of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, has twice told Outside the Lines that the league can decide whether to fund specific research.

The $16 million study the NFL backed away from will take seven years and try to identify methods for diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in living people.

The NFL had seemed fully invested in it until recently. The league's financial support for the study was praised by the White House during a May 2014 "concussion summit" and later touted by the league in its 2015 NFL Health and Safety Report. An NIH "request for applications" stipulated that all published material related to the study would require the acknowledgement of the Sports Health Research Program, the entity created in 2012 out of the league's $30 million donation.

But after the NIH awarded the study last spring to a group led by Stern, the NFL balked, sources told Outside the Lines. Among his public statements, Stern filed a 61-page affidavit questioning whether the league's settlement of a recent lawsuit would adequately compensate some of the most severely disabled former players.

The NIH ultimately decided to fund the study itself.

Stern said Thursday he has begun ramping up the study, but he declined to comment on the letter.

"I'm just really delighted that as of this week we're moving forward with this project full force," he said. "I and my colleagues are excited to get the science moving forward."

An NFL spokesman said the league had not been contacted by Congress and declined comment.

John Burklow, an NIH spokesman, confirmed in an email that the NIH had received the letter and planned to respond "directly and promptly."

A spokeswoman for the FNIH did not respond to requests for comment.

The league's $30 million donation to the NIH followed years in which the NFL's own scientists published research that described concussions as minor injuries and denied any link between football and brain disease. The league and the NIH said the donation came with no strings attached.

The congressional letter was signed by Pallone, Diana DeGette of Colorado, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Gene Green of Texas. It requested all documents and communication between the NFL, NIH and FNIH related to the $30 million donation. It also asked for answers to five questions, including whether the NFL maintains veto power "over any aspect of the research projects" funded through the grant.

After the Outside the Lines report, the FNIH released a statement that said the "NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. Stern." The FNIH declined to elaborate.

"What is the basis for this statement?" the congressional letter asked.

A source with knowledge of NIH funding in general and this case in particular told Outside the Lines: "That doesn't make any sense. Why would the NIH turn down money so it could pay the whole thing?"

Koroshetz, the director of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Outside the Lines last month that he asked the FNIH repeatedly whether the NFL would be funding the study but never received a definitive answer.