Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of an NFL committee on brain injuries, rebutted allegations that he was among at least a half-dozen top NFL health officials who waged an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign last year to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease.
"We know there are long-term risks of traumatic brain injury, and we need to know the incidence and prevalence," Ellenbogen told USA Today Sports on Monday. "Is it one in a million or is it 100 in a million? That was the entire thing that got blown up.
"I never talked to Congress. No one ever asked me my opinion. I had two private conversations with Walter [Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke], and this is a lesson I guess: Big Government can crush you if you disagree with them. I'm trying to protect the kids."
The 91-page congressional report described how the NFL pressured the National Institutes of Health to strip the $16 million project from a prominent Boston University researcher, Dr. Robert Stern, and tried to redirect the money to members of the league's committee on brain injuries. The study was to have been funded out of a $30 million "unrestricted gift" the NFL gave the NIH in 2012.
After the NIH rebuffed the NFL's campaign to remove Stern, an expert in neurodegenerative disease who has criticized the league, the NFL backed out of a signed agreement to pay for the study, the report shows. Taxpayers ended up bearing the cost instead.
The NFL's actions violated policies that prohibit private donors from interfering in the NIH peer-review process, the report concluded, and were part of a "long-standing pattern of attempts" by the league to shape concussion research for its own purposes.
The report singled out Dr. Ellenbogen for being one of the league's "primary advocates" opposing Stern, even though Ellenbogen had applied for the same grant and stood to benefit personally. Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee, previously denied to ESPN's Outside the Lines that he tried to influence the NIH, but the report sharply criticizes his actions.
"I wasn't on that phone call. He got it wrong. He got it 100 percent wrong," Ellenbogen told USA Today Sports about the report's contention that he told Dr. Koroshetz that he didn't think the NFL should fund the BU study. "I talked to him about the longitudinal study, not about the BU [proposed study]. ... I had a private phone call with him and I would take a lie detector tomorrow."
"I had something to gain? No, I had something to lose by telling the truth," Ellenbogen said. "The thing I had to lose is if I anger Walter Koroshetz, I'll never get another NIH grant again. How any federal official would then put this up publicly, I don't know."
Dr. Koroshetz described the NFL's campaign as unprecedented, telling investigators he "was aware of no other instance" in which a private donor attempted to intervene in the NIH grant selection process.
The NFL has repeatedly denied that it withheld funding because of objections to Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery and the director of clinical research at Boston University's CTE Center.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy on Monday said: "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."