NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, under fire in the wake of a Congressional report that criticized the league for exerting undue influence on a concussion research project, told all 32 owners in a letter sent Thursday that the league is committed to medical research and finding ways to better protect players at all levels of the sport.
Following up on his remarks to the owners and later to reporters at a league meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday, Goodell reiterated the NFL’s pledge to fund concussion research, including a study by the Boston University School of Medicine that was at the heart of a Congressional committee’s report assailing the league’s alleged attempts to influence who conducted the project.
“As discussed during our recent meeting, the NFL has a unique responsibility and opportunity to drive change and advance progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries,” Goodell wrote. “That is our unwavering commitment to our players, former players, athletes at all levels, and society more broadly.”
The Congressional panel, headed by New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone, concluded that the league attempted to steer the Boston University project, which aims to find ways of detecting Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients, away from researcher Dr. Robert Stern, who has been critical of the NFL’s handling of concussion-related issues. The league had initially pledged $16 million toward the project, but then lowered that figure to $2 million, with the additional costs being paid by the National Institutes of Health, a government organization funded by taxpayers.
“At the core of that commitment is your continued and robust support of independent medical research, including the $30 million contribution to the National Institutes of Health [NIH] for scientific research on concussion and head injury,” Goodell wrote. “I want to reaffirm in the strongest possible terms my comments to you during the league meeting and my public statements this week reaffirming the NFL’s commitment to the NIH of the $30 million in grant funding we pledged to accelerate scientific understanding of concussion and head injury. There was no consideration given to anything other than honoring that commitment in its entirety.”
Goodell said the NFL’s research contributions to the NIH so far totals $12 million for “two $6-million agreements dedicated to studies that define the long-term changes that occur in the brain after a head injury or multiple concussions. Boston University School of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs received $6 million for a study on CTE and post-traumatic neurodegeneration, while Mount Sinai Hospital received $6 million for a study on the neuropathology of CTE and Delayed Effects of TBI. Additionally, the NFL grant has funded six pilot projects totaling more than $2 million to provide support for the early stages of sports-related concussion projects.”
Goodell also told owners that, in addition to the $30 million contribution to the NIH, “we will move forward on the work discussed with you earlier this week, including substantial additional funding for projects relating to safety equipment, treatment of athletes who have experienced concussions, and a longitudinal study relating to the incidence and prevalence of long-term health consequences.”
He concluded by saying the league looks “forward to a productive and ongoing partnership with the NIH and others to advance our shared priorities, and to committing additional funding to medical research and engineering advances to enhance the safety of athletes at all levels.”
Asked by Newsday at the league meeting about the criticism leveled by the Congressional report, which also accused NFL medical adviser Dr. Richard Ellenbogen of reaching out to the NIH on behalf of the league to influence the direction of the research project, Goodell disagreed with the conclusions.
“I take a much different position to that on several fronts,” he said. “One is our commitment to medical research is well documented. We made a commitment to the NIH. It is normal practice to have discussions back and forth with the NIH. We have several members that are advisers on our committees — Betsy Nagel, Rich Ellenbogen — who have had experience with NIH or worked with NIH.
“It is very important to continue to have that kind of dialogue through appropriate channels, which our advisers have,” Goodell said. “That’s a standard practice. We have our commitment of $30 million to the NIH. We’re not pulling that back one bit. We continue to focus on things our advisers believe are important to study. Ultimately, it is the NIH’s decision.”
Goodell also criticized the Congressional report for not contacting Ellenbogen over issues that concerned the lawmakers’ committee.
Ellenbogen, professor and chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Washington, wrote a letter to the committee, a copy of which was obtained by Newsday, and expressed outrage over not being contacted over his role in the NIH research. The letter was addressed to Pallone.
“Yesterday a report from the minority staff of your committee was released to the media alleging that I and others participated in an effort to influence an NIH grant selection process,” Ellenbogen wrote. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, I was not afforded the simple opportunity to make this plain to your staff members, despite the fact that my contact information was provided to them and my willingness to engage with them on any question was made clear to them. I find this basic lack of fairness, combined with the disregard for the opinions and reputations of the medical professionals named in this report, to be unworthy of the important committee that you lead. At a minimum, I hope you can understand my profound objection to this maligning without so much as the courtesy of a direct question to me by your staff.”
Ellenbogen said he believes there “is a vital need for a longitudinal study that tracks the impact concussions have over many years. We need to better understand the long-term risks of traumatic brain injury. I made clear to the NIH that this should be a priority. The advancement of science and research in this field is of critical importance — and we must work together to understand what it is telling us and how we must adapt accordingly.”