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Health Charity Disputes ESPN Report That NFL Pulled Funding For Concussion Study

ESPN said the NFL had directed money from a $30 million gift to Foundation for the National Institutes of Health away from a particular researcher.

Originally posted on
Updated on

The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health released a statement Tuesday disputing an ESPN report Tuesday morning that the NFL revoked funding for a study on "the relationship between football and brain disease."

"The study seeks to capture what has been described as the holy grail of concussion research: the ability to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in living patients," ESPN reported.

The ESPN report said the NFL vetoed the use of funds from a $30 million gift to the foundation — a charity created by Congress to raise funds for the National Institutes of Health — in 2012 for a particular study to be conducted by Boston University researcher Robert Stern.

ESPN's sources said the NFL "raised concerns about Stern's objectivity, despite an exhaustive vetting process that included a 'scientific merit review' and a separate evaluation by a dozen high-level experts assembled by the NIH."

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told ESPN the unnamed sources were wrong, stating: "The NIH makes its own funding decisions."

On Tuesday, McCarthy tweeted that the "ESPN story is not accurate. NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions."

McCarthy later told BuzzFeed News the league "has no 'veto power' as part of its unrestricted $30 million grant to NIH."

A few hours after the ESPN report was published, the foundation released a statement saying the "NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. Stern. NIH made the decision to fund this study in its entirety."

The FNIH's statement appears to dispute the basis of the ESPN report.

ESPN's report was written by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, whose book and corresponding PBS documentary "League of Denial" presented some of the earliest comprehensive reporting on the NFL's handling of concussions and brain injuries.

The report was published three days before the release date of Sony's feature film Concussion, starring Will Smith. The film depicts how a Nigerian-born neuropathologist discovered CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease with symptoms similar to dementia, in the brains of deceased NFL players, and the NFL's attempts to stifle his research. The film draws heavily on reporting done by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, though that is not explicitly mentioned. If the NFL revoked funding for the CTE study, it would have appeared consistent with the NFL's previous attempts to deny the correlation between football and long-term brain injury.

An ESPN spokesman told BuzzFeed News the report "has been updated to reflect the content of the just-released FNIH statement and we stand by our reporting."

The full FNIH statement is below:

Through the Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP) —a partnership among the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Football League (NFL), and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)—multiple studies have been and will continue to be funded to examine traumatic brain injury in athletes. The NFL funding commitment to SHRP remains intact. NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. Stern. NIH made the decision to fund this study in its entirety and to issue a Request for Applications (RFA) early next year to support an additional study on CTE using funds from SHRP, which will double the support for research in this area.

Lindsey Adler is a sports reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Lindsey Adler at lindsey.adler@buzzfeed.com.

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