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The 5 O'Clock Club: The partnership between the NFL and the NIH now appears to be a no-brainer

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Player health and safety is an important topic in relation to the NFL. The league takes it seriously -- or at the very least provides the lip service that would lead the casual observer to believe they take it seriously.

Of particular interest is brain injury, and most specifically understanding the causes of CTE. Everyone who watches NFL football is aware of the high profile efforts to deal with concussions in the game; I don’t think they need to be detailed here.

In 2012, the league made a high-profile commitment to the study of health issues including brain trauma, and put their money where their mouth is... at least they seemed to. In September of 2012, right around the time that young Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was taking his first snaps in the Superdome in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, the league announced that it was donating $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on serious health conditions.

A story in the Washington Post dated 4 September 2012 gave some details of the arrangement:

The Foundation for NIH is an organization established by Congress to raise private funds and create public-private partnerships to support the mission of NIH.

When the NFL and the NFL Players Association completed their 10-year labor deal last year, they agreed to commit more than $100 million over the duration of the pact to medical research, primarily on research of brain injuries. Goodell said the league decided to move forward with this donation to NIH because it felt a sense of urgency to get the research going.

“We’re having those discussions with the Players Association. … We’re just proceeding [with this donation] on the basis we need to get moving on this,” Goodell said.

Discussions with NIH representatives have been taking place for at least six months, Goodell said.

“Our goal is to aggressively partner with the best scientists to understand more about the brain and brain injuries, to make things safer for our athletes and for others,” Goodell said. “If we can learn more about the brain, we can not only make football safer, but make things safer for other sports and other walks of life.”

The partnership that began with so much promise in September 2012 resembles the career of Robert Griffin III that began in the same week. Although it looked very promising at the start, the partnership will come to a final crashing halt tomorrow, five years after it began.

Nearly five years ago, the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain research, an initiative that commissioner Roger Goodell touted as a demonstration of the league's commitment to fund independent science exploring the link between football and brain disease. But the marriage between the NFL and the government agency appears headed for a divorce.

NIH officials decided months ago to let the agreement expire in August with more than half of the money unused, following 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 expected NFL-NIH breakup would mark an uneasy conclusion to an initiative often billed as the largest single donation in NFL history. In the end, the NIH has signaled its willingness to leave approximately $16 million on the table, a measure of the mistrust that built up following the league's unsuccessful efforts to rescind funding awarded to a group led by Robert Stern, a Boston University neuroscientist.

Under the original partnership with the NFL, the league retained veto power over how its $30 million donation could be used.

On Wednesday -- one day after Boston University researchers reported finding neurodegenerative disease in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players -- ranking Democrats from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Goodell asking how the league planned to "follow through with its commitment to the NIH."

"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 NIH's statement reads. "NIH is currently funding concussion research directly.”

In an interview last month, Patrick Bellgowan, a program director for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a branch of the NIH, [said]: "Right now, we are funding all of our concussion research independently. If you asked me what happened with the agreement, there's no action that I'm aware of. So it ends in August. I have not heard of any plans to use the remaining funds."

The NFL announced its $30 million "unrestricted gift" to the NIH in September 2012 -- four months after San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Goodell billed the donation as an effort to fund independent research that would get to the bottom of the link between football and brain damage -- a connection that the league had denied for nearly two decades.

The NIH said the money came "with no strings attached."

By 2013, the NIH had begun to distribute the NFL money for peer-reviewed research. The NIH awarded two $6 million grants for a "comprehensive investigation" into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and six pilot studies totaling $2 million. One of the recipients of the larger grants was Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee -- a colleague of Stern's -- whose research produced the announcement this week that 110 of 111 former deceased NFL players had CTE.

McKee, who has clashed with the NFL over her conclusions, also has described the league's funding as "an absolute lifeline for my work."

The dispute over the $16 million grant awarded to a group to be led by Stern erupted in late 2015. The money was earmarked for research to find CTE in living patients; the disease currently can only be diagnosed post-mortem. According to reporting by Outside the Lines and a separate congressional report, several NFL health officials tried to persuade the NIH to rescind the award, including 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 subcommittee on the long-term effects of brain and spine injury. The NFL tried to redirect the funding to a group that included researchers affiliated with the league, the congressional report concluded.

The May 2016 report, issued by Democrats from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce following a months-long investigation, concluded that despite a signed agreement with the NIH, the NFL backed out of funding the seven-year, longitudinal study when it learned that Stern would be the lead researcher.

In public statements and written responses to the committee, the NFL repeatedly denied it withheld funding but argued that the NIH selection process was tainted by Stern's bias and a conflict of interest involving a reviewer. The league maintained it had been prepared to fund a portion of the study but that it was told the NIH decided to use public funds instead. The report stated that the NFL made a last-minute offer of $2 million -- a fraction of its original commitment -- but was turned down by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Shortly after that controversy, the NFL announced a new commitment to spend $100 million toward concussion research and innovation. That money is administered by the league.

As the league prepares to start its new season in a matter of days, its partnership with the NIH will end with less than half the original $30 million commitment having been spent. It seems an unfortunate end to a promising plan.


Do you believe Roger Goodell and the owners when they say they care about player safety?

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