It looked good on paper, anyway: The NFL last year signed an agreement to fund a $16 million, seven-year study that aimed to find methods for detecting -- in living patients -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in dozens of deceased NFL players.
But the NFL broke the agreement after the league didn't like the research group the U.S. government selected.
That's one of the major findings in a congressional report released Monday. It concludes that top NFL health officials waged an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign to strip the award from Robert Stern, a respected researcher from Boston University who has criticized the league, and redirect the money to members of the NFL's brain injury committee.
Five things we learned from the report:
Not-quite "unrestricted": When the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain research in 2012, commissioner Roger Goodell called it an "unrestricted" gift. The congressional report, though, lays out a series of league attempts to have Stern removed from the CTE study. When those efforts failed, the league refused to fund the project.
The NFL and brain research don't always pair well: Congressional investigators called the NFL's actions a "long-standing pattern of attempts" to shape concussion research for its own purposes. "In this instance, our investigation has shown that 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 states.
Taxpayers had to pick up the NFL's tab: The league was warned that if it withdrew funding for the study, taxpayers would have to pay for it. The NFL was also warned that the NIH would be "unable to fund other meritorious research for several years" if the league backed out. The league ultimately offered $2 million to "help dampen criticism," but the NIH rejected it.
The NFL tried an end run: Even after a government review panel upheld the award to the researcher the league wanted removed, the NFL sought to funnel the $16 million to its own project -- one that would involve members of the league's brain injury committee. The plan would have allowed the NFL researchers to avoid a rigorous peer-review process. The idea was rejected.
A top NFL adviser was an applicant for the same grant: The report singles out Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the co-chair of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, for criticism. The report says Ellenbogen was one of the league's "primary advocates" in the campaign to remove Stern, even though he stood to benefit personally. "Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL advisor," the report states.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy on Monday said: "The NFL rejects the allegations laid out in the Democratic Staff Report of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Committee. 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."