Funding for Football Head Injury Study Moving Forward at NIH
By Burt Carey
Research into head injuries suffered by football players and other athletes will continue at theNational Institutes of Health.
A media report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines this week claimed that the National Football League had pulled its multi-million dollar backing of research into traumatic brain injuries. The NFL and NIH sharply disagreed with the ESPN report.
“The NFL, which spent years criticizing researchers who warned about the dangers of football-related head trauma, has backed out of one of the most ambitious studies yet on the relationship between football and brain disease, sources familiar with the project told Outside the Lines,” wrote ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
The NFL granted $30 million in 2012 to the NIH to help fund research into brain injuries suffered by players. The league said then and continues to say that it has granted the funding with no strings attached. Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, wrote “ESPN story is not accurate. NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decision,” on his Twitter feed Dec. 22.
The ESPN story was based on sources who claimed the NFL refused to allow its funding to be used once the research project had been awarded to a group led by Boston University researcher Dr. Robert Stern, director of clinical research for Boston University’s Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE centers.
The NIH also refuted the story and made the following statement:
“Through the Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP) —a partnership among the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Football League (NFL), and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)—multiple studies have been and will continue to be funded to examine traumatic brain injury in athletes. The NFL funding commitment to SHRP remains intact. NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. Stern. NIH made the decision to fund this study in its entirety and to issue a Request for Applications (RFA) early next year to support an additional study on CTE using funds from SHRP, which will double the support for research in this area.”
The dust-up between ESPN and the NFL comes less than a week before the Christmas Day opening of Concussion, a film starring Will Smith who portrays Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian neuropathologist who discovered chronic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of NFL Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. The discovery led to a class-action lawsuit brought by former NFL players against the league. The case was settled.
“In my opinion, taking professional football players as a cohort, I think over 90% of American football players suffer from this disease,” Omalu said in a TIME magazine article this week. “Over 90% of players who play to the professional level have some degree of this disease. I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative.”