A few weeks back, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported that the NFL backed out of funding an ambitious $16 million study aimed at diagnosing CTE, the degenerative brain disease, in living patients because the doctor in charge of the study had been critical of the league. (Ken Stabler, as well as dozens of former NFL players, have been diagnosed with the disease posthumously.)
Today, OTL published a story suggesting that the league's substantial investment in concussion research may be a little bit more complicated than simply uncovering the truth. The story, which you should read in its entirety, dives into a long, complex narrative revealing a body within the NFL potentially intent on suppressing concussion research.
Over the past three and a half years, the league has transformed itself into one of the largest funders of brain research in the United States, allowing it to maintain a powerful role in science that could affect millions of people and, not incidentally, the bottom line of America's richest and most popular sport.
But beneath the surface of the NFL's largesse is a secretive funding apparatus with its own set of rules, one that often rewards league doctors, punishes critics and, some researchers believe, steers research away from potentially uncomfortable truths about the relationship between football and brain disease.
The research of Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who's part of Boston University's CTE center, is heavily funded by the league. She has also clashed with the NFL because she believes pro football players are at risk of CTE. From the OTL report.
"I think you always feel like you're on tenuous ground with them, always concerned that their commitment may not be long term, that it may be conditional," said McKee. "You do feel like you take two steps ahead, and you have to take two steps back. So it's a mixed message."
In one instance, the NFL put money into a study examining the efficacy of concussion-tracking helmet sensors that OTL reports had "standards for accuracy that were unattainable." The league later used the results of the study as a justification for removing the sensors from helmets.
Dr. Hans Breiter, a psychiatrist and behavioral scientist at Northwestern, likens a speech from Kevin Guskiewicz (the chair of the NFL's Subcommittee on Safety Equipment on Playing Rules) to a tobacco lobbyist:
"The whole group of us at our table were going, 'What? You gotta be kidding me,'" Breiter said. "It was really bizarre. We all started to look at each other and say, 'This is what happened with Big Tobacco.' It felt like we were going back to the stage where the people who were funded by Big Tobacco were saying smoking is not harmful."
There's much, much more in the report worth diving into.
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.