The drama involving the National Football League and concussions is far from over, and actually the worst for the NFL may be yet to come.
A Congressional report released this month claims that health officials employed by the NFL improperly attempted to influence a government study of the link between football and brain disease, through withholding funding that it had promised on the condition that a researcher whose work was unfriendly to the NFL’s interests be removed from the study.
The report alleges that the NFL put pressure on the National Institute of Health to take the $16 million study away from Robert Stern, a prominent Boston researcher who had frequently criticized the NFL on player safety, and give the project to the NFL’s own research committee. That $16 million was part of a $30 million donation that the NFL had given to the NIH under the pretense of zero restrictions on how it was to be used.
When the NIH declined the NFL’s request to allow people on the NFL’s payroll to conduct the study, the report states, the NFL pulled its funding despite a signed contract. Because of this, the study has instead been funded by tax money.
In response to the Congressional report, the NFL released this statement via spokesman Brian McCarthy, found in an Outside the Lines report by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
“The NFL rejects the allegations laid out … There is no dispute that there were concerns raised about both the nature of the study in question and possible conflicts of interest. These concerns were raised for review and consideration through the appropriate channels. … It is deeply disappointing the authors of the Staff Report would make allegations directed at doctors affiliated with the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee without ever speaking to them.”
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith also commented, trying to distance the NFLPA from the NFL in the public eye on this matter.
“It’s one of the most troubling and disturbing reports I’ve seen. It reaffirms the fact that the league has its own view about how they care about players in the NFL.”
Despite the NFL’s objections and attempts to delay/cancel the Stern study, it will open next week in Boston with 50 researchers and hundreds of former football players at the collegiate and NCAA level as test subjects. When the study concludes, we will have more evidence detailing the correlation between playing football at a high level and long-lasting neurological disorders.
As far as what may happen to the NFL, that’s unclear. The United States government has had a very favorable view of the NFL up until the concussion controversy began, constantly protecting its anti-trust exemption in court and allowing it to maintain its 501c3 status despite generating billions of dollars in revenue until the NFL voluntarily forfeited its tax-exempt designation in 2015.
Significant penalties from the US government may not be necessary, however. If the Stern study uncovers further strong correlations between playing football and pathological brain disease, the damage done to the game could be punishment enough.