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NFL ends NIH partnership at halftime, removes funding

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Is the National Football League (NFL) being a sore loser? After pledging $30 million in 2012 to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research on medical conditions in athletes, the NFL recently announced it is leaving the game at halftime, and taking the ball (about $16 million in unspent funds) home.

Although the NFL originally gave the money with “no strings attached,” a congressional committee later found that the organization had tried to influence NIH decisions. When the NIH was considering research proposals, the NFL urged the agency to reject a proposal on brain damage from Boston University researcher Dr. Robert Stern. Stern had previously criticized the NFL for not appropriately compensating concussion victims. When the NIH went forward with Stern’s proposal, the NFL pulled funding for the project. Since then, the NFL has funded other NIH studies, but is still leaving more than half of the money it pledged unspent.

Some researchers are not surprised that the NFL stopped funding concussion studies that the NFL cannot control. “The results are considered too damaging,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neuroscientist, quoted in Rolling Stone. McKee and her team just published the results of their research (not funded by the NFL) that show a high proportion of degenerative brain disease within a sample of deceased football players.

McKee’s study was not taken from a random sample of players, and shouldn’t be the last word on the potential hazards of professional football. But the NFL may not be helping its case by following in the footsteps of other big industries that have tried to influence scientific research. The best way to win this game is to play by the rules and put the health of players first.