NFL and NIH end agreement to fund brain injury research

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Nearly five years ago, the NFL responded to intense scrutiny over its handling of concussions and high-profile suicides like that of linebacker Junior Seau by publicly committing to donate $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain research. At the time, it helped to quell strong criticism and give the NFL the chance to look proactive about a growing crisis.

Now, it appears the NFL and NIH are ending that agreement with more than half of that money unspent. At the end of August, the partnership will officially expire.

ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru say the split is the result of “a bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the league.”

The NIH confirmed the decision in a statement to ESPN reading, “The NFL’s agreement with [the funding arm of the NIH] ends August 31, 2017, and there are no current research plans for the funds remaining from the original $30 million NFL commitment.”

The public confirmation comes two days after the Washington Post reported that Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked the NFL if it planned to fulfill the terms of its agreement.

The NFL responded to requests for a comment from CNN’s Jill Marin with a statement that says:

“We are currently engaged in constructive discussions with the FINH regarding potential new research projects and the remaining funds of our $30 million commitment. In September 2016, the NFL pledged $100 million in support for independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience-related topics. This is in addition to the $100 million that the NFL and its partners are already spending on medical and neuroscience research.”

While the league claims to be supporting research despite the end of its partnership, evidence suggests it is using its money to influence results of scientific studies and misrepresent the severe effects of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

A May 2016 report from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce showed how the NFL had attempted to influence NIH studies with their donation.

“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 committee wrote. “The NFL attempted to use its ‘unrestricted gift’ as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics.”

News of the split is likely to provide the NFL with sorely-needed good PR. Just last week, findings published in the journal JAMA noted that CTE related to repeated concussions had been found in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players. Perhaps instead of fighting the science on brain injuries, the NFL should devote its money to actually working to protect its athletes.

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