The NFL’s dubious history with concussions took another hit this week when a congressional investigation criticized the league’s health and safety officials, specifically citing conduct of Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, a University of Washington professor and chairman of the neurological surgery unit.
Also the attending neurosurgeon at Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Children’s, Ellenbogen has served for six years without pay as co-chair of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee, which helped force in mid-season of 2010 changes to NFL rules regarding tackling to lessen the risk of head trauma. Members of the committee have travel expenses reimbursed and receive free Super Bowl tickets, according to the report.
The 91-page report by the Democratic minority staff of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce committee released Monday said Ellenbogen and members of his committee “played an inappropriate role in an attempt to influence the outcome of the grant selection process” for a commitment of $16 million from the NFL to the National Institute of Health. The offer was made in 2012, part of the largest philanthropic gift in the league’s history, and described then as “unrestricted.”
But when NIH selected a team led by Dr. Robert Stern, director of clinical research at Boston University’s CTE center, who has previously questioned and criticized the NFL’s policies and procedures, the NFL tried to back out of the agreement. The ESPN story was reported in December, which prompted the congressional inquiry.
“This is not good,” Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, told SI.com from his office in Washington, D.C. “Obviously, the NFL was trying to influence what was supposed to be an impartial look into a very serious investigation by the NIH.
“That’s not what we do with these grants. It’s imperative that these grants enable the research to be totally impartial. That is the only way you get the truth.”
Stern in October 2014 issued a statement objecting to the details of $765 million settlement offered by the NFL to retired players who sued the league over failure to disclose what it knew about the consequences of concussions. He urged players not to accept the deal.
Stern wants to use the research funding in part to develop a way to diagnose CTE in the living, which is not yet possible. His group received the award over another group of doctors that was said to have included Ellenbogen. According to the report:
Although he did not violate any specific NIH rule we are aware of, Dr. Ellenbogen’s participation in these discussions contravenes the spirit of the NIH conflict of interest rules, which are designed to ensure that individuals who have a financial interest in the outcome of a grant award are not involved in the decision-making process to award such a grant.
The report cited Ellenbogen’s role on the NFL’s HNS committee and his inclusion in the group that was bypassed for the NFL research funding as a classic conflict of interest.
Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL advisor. He had been part of a group that applied for the $16 million grant. After his group was not selected, Dr. Ellenbogen became one of the NFL’s primary advocates in expressing concerns surrounding the process with the BU grant selection.
Responding to the findings Monday, the NFL made public a letter in which the league admitted it had reservations about the BU study, but believed to have raised them through the proper channels. Ellenbogen personally disputed the report’s version of events to SI.com.
“I don’t want to engage in this form of McCarthyism, where if you don’t support me, you’re going to out me,” he said, claiming he had only an advisory role with the rival group and would not have benefited financially.
On Tuesday, he wrote Pallone, the Democrats’ ranking member, to complain that he was not contacted by congressional staffers prior to publication, and did not attempt to influence the NIH on behalf of himself or the league. He wrote in part:
Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, I was not afforded the simple opportunity to make this plain to your staff members, despite the fact that my contact information was provided to them and my willingness to engage with them on any question was made clear to them. I find this basic lack of fairness, combined with the disregard for the opinions and reputations of the medical professionals named in this report, to be unworthy of the important committee that you lead. At a minimum, I hope you can understand my profound objection to this maligning without so much as the courtesy of a direct question to me by your staff.
Medical professionals can and always will discuss priorities and debate protocols; that is healthy and appropriate. I believe strongly that there is a vital need for a longitudinal study that tracks the impact concussions have over many years. We need to better understand the long-term risks of traumatic brain injury.
I regret that your minority staff report did nothing to further momentum on these goals and the understanding of these important scientific questions.
Whether the dispute is purely a matter of debate about the scientific strategy to detect and mitigate brain trauma is hard to know. But the objections raised about the bias of the funding recipient chosen by the NIH follows a pattern of heavy-handedness by the NFL that remains damaging.
Stern is not alone in his criticisms of NFL behavior, after its undisputed history of denial about the connections between football and traumatic brain injury up until about 2009. Even at the past Super Bowl, one of the members of the HNS committee, Dr. Mitchel Berger, a neurosurgeon at Cal-Berkeley, denied to a reporter a link between football and degenerative brain disorders.
And now, the NFL appears to want to influence the choice of who gets to spend its donated money, even though such influence is expressly prohibited in the rules by which NIH accepts grants and gifts, and was known to the NFL at the time of the announcement.
Again, the announcement was in 2012, with no progress made on research the NFL said it wanted. The findings by the House committee may be in dispute, but there’s no doubt the calendar says it’s almost halfway through 2016 and the money has yet to do good.
The more the research is delayed, the more the league appears to have an allergy to the truth. And if a truth is discovered, who would believe the NFL?