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Report: NFL Confronted NIH on Brain Study Researcher

Last December, the National Football League backed out of a $16 million study on brain disease because it reportedly did not approve of the study’s researcher. The NFL denied that report. Now, that denial has come under question.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported Thursday that three NFL officers confronted the National Institutes of Health last June after the NIH selected Boston University researcher Dr. Robert Stern — who had been critical of the league and its concussion lawsuit settlement with former players — to lead the study on football and brain disease.

Related: Opinion: Don’t Trust NFL on Concussion Research

The $16 million study is intended to find methods to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients. (CTE has been found in dozens of deceased NFL players.) The study was part of a $30 million grant the NFL gave to the NIH in 2012 as a gift “with no strings attached.”

The NFL denied ESPN’s report in December. However, according to Outside the Lines:

But Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Outside the Lines this week that the NFL raised several concerns about Stern's selection during a June conference call that included Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety; Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the Head, Neck and Spine Committee; and Dr. Mitch Berger, chairman of the sub-committee on the long-term effects of brain and spine injury.

The NFL also alleged that Stern filed a 61-page affidavit opposing the league’s concussion settlement. Koroshetz, who was on the call with representatives of the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH), a nonprofit organization independent of the NIH that administers the NFL grant, told Outside the Lines that “it was a fairly clear message” that the NFL transmitted on the June conference call.

When contacted about Koroshetz’ claim, the FNIH also acknowledged the NFL’s concerns from June. FNIH financial statements describe the NFL’s $30 million gift as a “conditional contribution” that allows the NFL to cancel its funding, according to Outside the Lines. 

Koroshetz told ESPN that the NIH eventually concluded that there was no basis to the NFL’s claims. However, the NIH decided to use taxpayer money to fund the $16 million study.

In a statement to ESPN, the NFL’s Miller said the “NIH made the decision to move forward with the BU study with its own funds and to use NFL funds” for another CTE project.

“The NFL has no veto power as part of its $30 million grant to the FNIH,” Miller said. “We recognize NIH has final approval on its funding decisions.”

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