The NFL has withdrawn from funding a major research initiative on the relationship between football and brain disease due to concerns over the objectivity of the Boston University doctor leading the project, the ESPN news program Outside The Lines reported on Tuesday.
The seven-year, $16m study was to be funded from a $30m research grant the NFL pledged to the National Institute of Health. That headline-grabbing donation had been characterized as an “unrestricted gift” when it was announced in 2012, a condition intended as a firewall between the league and researchers.
The NFL reportedly exercised veto power upon learning Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the private research university, had been chosen to head the project. Stern has previously criticized the NFL’s handling of concussions, most notably the $765m class-action settlement for players found to have the condition.
Boston University announced the study in a news release on Tuesday with no mention of the NFL, saying it seeks to “create methods for detecting and diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy during life as well as examining risk factors for CTE”.
A September report by PBS’s Frontline documentary series, conducted by conducted by Boston University and Department of Veterans Affairs researchers, said that 87 of 91 former NFL players examined tested positive for CTE.
Previously, the biggest obstacle to being able to diagnose and study the brain disease is that the doctors have needed to examine players’ brains and the only way that’s been possible is for the player to be dead.
CTE is similar to Alzheimer’s in its symptoms – memory loss, irritability, mood changes – but with its own distinct pathology.
A league spokesperson denied the ESPN report on Tuesday morning, calling the report “not accurate” and referring further inquiries to the NIH.
Said Brian McCarthy, the league’s vice president of communications: “NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions.”
The announcement of the Boston University study on Tuesday comes three days before the release of the feature film Concussion, which focuses on Dr Bennet Omalu, the scientist who discovered CTE in the brains of deceased football players.