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NFL executives reportedly tried to influence a government study on brain research. USATSI

A congressional report into the NFL's decision to pull funding from a National Institute of Health study claims the league attempted to "influence [concussion] research" according to a report Monday from ESPN's Outside the Lines.

Back in December of 2015, OTL reported the league backed out of a $16 million concussion research project (part of a larger $30 million grant) to the NIH. The league denied the allegation. The result of that report was an investigation by Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce into the matter.

OTL obtained a copy of the report:

After the NIH rebuffed the NFL's campaign to remove Robert Stern, an expert in neurodegenerative disease who has criticized the league, the NFL backed out of a signed agreement to pay for the study, the report shows. Taxpayers ended up bearing the cost instead.

The NFL's actions violated policies that prohibit private donors from interfering in the NIH peer-review process, the report concludes, and were part of a "long-standing pattern of attempts" by the league to shape concussion research for its own purposes.

"In this instance, our investigation has shown that while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research," the report states.

It's a pretty serious charge to levy against the league, basically claiming the NFL attempted to alter the way concussion research was handled in order to benefit the league. At the crux of the claim here is the league did not want Stern, the Boston University doctor, involved in the study.

This concern is not new -- it's the same issue the NFL had in late 2015.

"They wanted to look like the good guy, like they were giving money for this research," U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said to OTL. "But as soon as they found out that it might be somebody who they don't like who's doing the research, they were reneging on their commitment, essentially."

The Congressional report also found other problems, according to Outside the Lines, including:

  • Issues with one of the "primary advocates" -- Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, a co-chair on the NFL committee for brain injury -- who opposed Stern's appointment while attempting to land the grant himself.
  • After a review panel gave the case to Stern despite the league's reported objections, the league allegedly tried to funnel its $16M into a different research project that would allowed NFL researchers to skirt the NIH's peer-review process. NIH Director Francis Collins rejected the idea.

"Once you get anybody who's heavily involved with the NFL trying to influence what kind of research takes place, you break that chain that guarantees the integrity, and that's what I think is so crucial here," Pallone said to Outside the Lines. "Fortunately, the NIH didn't take the bait. It shouldn't be a rigged game. If it is, then people won't really know whether what we're finding through this research is accurate."

Part of the league's concern was Stern submitted an affidavit in support of players who were against the settlement of the concussion lawsuit against the league -- there was concern about his ability to be unbiased in the face of working on a project funded by the NFL.

The league declined to comment for the OTL story.