The Associated Press
SEATTLE — The co-chairman of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee has sent a letter to Congress stressing that he was not contacted during a government study on the link between football and brain disease.
That study concluded that NFL officials improperly sought to influence the findings.
Dr. Richard Ellenbogen wrote Tuesday to New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone to note that claims he and others tried to influence a National Institutes of Health grant selection are inaccurate. Ellenbogen called not being interviewed a “basic lack of fairness” and a “maligning without so much as the courtesy of a direct question to me by your staff.”
Pallone said the league tried to strong-arm the NIH into taking the project away from a researcher who the NFL feared was biased.
According to the study, the NFL had agreed to donate $30 million to the NIH to fund brain research, but backed out after the institutes went ahead with a $16 million grant to prominent Boston University researcher Robert Stern. He’s a leading expert on the link between football and brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Taxpayers are instead bearing the cost.
The NFL denied Pallone’s findings.
While defending himself, Ellenbogen, chairman of the University of Washington Department of Neurological Surgery, criticized the study as counterproductive in efforts to understand the long-term risks of traumatic brain injury.
“To be clear, I am not and never have been paid by the NFL nor have I ever received funding through the research grant dollars in question,” he said. “I am a physician on the front lines of this issue, treating kids and counseling parents every day on understanding concussions and repetitive head injury. I feel passionately that there is urgent work ahead to fill the tremendous gap in funding and support on this issue.”
One section of the congressional report dealt directly with Ellenbogen.
“Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL adviser,” the study said. “He had been part of a group that applied for the $16 million grant. After his group was not selected, Dr. Ellenbogen became one of the NFL’s primary advocates in expressing concerns surrounding the process with the BU grant selection.”
Some of the members of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee who opposed Stern had also sought the grant, the study said.
The league acknowledged Monday it had raised concerns about the study and a potential conflict of interest involving Stern. But NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the NFL had communicated its concerns through appropriate channels.
It noted that the league stands behind its $30 million promise and that the government ultimately made the decision on funding the study in question.