The NFL Has Abandoned All Pretense of Caring About Its Players or the Concussion Crisis

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Photo: Jonathan Daniel

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rarely misses an opportunity to pump up the league’s efforts to protect players from the dangers of the game. Turns out it’s not only the game the players need protecting from.

The NFL itself is as big a threat to player safety as repeated blows to the head. The latest evidence comes from a 91-page congressional report that accuses at least six NFL officials of trying to quash a National Institutes of Health study on football and brain injuries. According to the report, league officials wanted the NIH to remove doctor Robert Stern, a Boston University neurologist who’s been critical of the NFL’s handling of its concussion crisis, from the research team. When the NIH refused, the NFL refused to pay the $16 million needed to fund the study.

And so the expense became the responsibility of the taxpayers, reducing the NIH’s ability to “fund other meritorious research for several years,” the report says.

That $16 million was supposed to come from an “unrestricted gift” of $30 million that the league gave to the NIH in 2012. But to no one’s real surprise, that money wasn’t “unrestricted” at all. The league attempted to use the “gift” to exercise control over who conducted government research. And even though the NIH is responsible for reviewing, awarding, and overseeing grants, the NFL continually weighed in, despite the NIH’s policy prohibiting donors from any involvement in grant selection.

They wanted to look like the good guy, like they were giving money for this research,” New Jersey representative Frank Pallone Jr. told ESPN. “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.”

It’s hardly surprising. This is how the NFL has operated for decades. In March, the New York Times reported that a handful of studies conducted by the league’s own concussion committee in the late ’90s and early 2000s were basically garbage. Though peer-reviewed, the studies, which found that the concussion risk in football is not as bad as critics feared, were deeply flawed because they relied on incomplete data sets. Some teams were not reporting any concussions at all.

If there’s any silver lining to this story, it’s that, unlike a decade and a half ago, when the NFL was able to publish doctored data to form a predetermined result, it failed this time around. On the other hand, this time the taxpayer wound up footing the bill.