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Latest NFL concussion criticism is off base

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

On Tuesday, ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” dropped a bit of a bombshell, reporting that the NFL pulled $30 million in funding allocated toward a Boston University study set to examine the relationship between the game of football and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The story happened to come on the same day that the university announced a seven-year, $16 million initiative that will attempt to find a way to diagnose CTE in living patients, the Holy Grail of concussion research. Currently, the disease can only be confirmed post-mortem.

So what gives?

When the NFL gave the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the $30 million for research purposes, it claimed it would put no restrictions on how the money was used and ostensibly gave the NIH complete control over how to distribute it.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy doubled down on that and denied ESPN’s reporting on Twitter: “ESPN story is not accurate,” he wrote. “NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions.”

Later Tuesday the NIH got on board with the NFL’s narrative by confirming they made the decision to pull the NFL’s grant money out of the BU study.

“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 NIH explained in its statement. “The NFL funding commitment to SHRP remains intact. NFL was willing to contribute to the Boston University CTE study headed by Dr. (Robert) 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.”

So, here’s your scorecard in the latest concussion controversy: ESPN’s claim that the NFL money that was originally earmarked to the NIH’s charitable arm for the BU study and was pulled is correct. However, the reason it was taken away is still murky with “Outside the Lines” claiming the NFL vetoed things because Stern, a harsh critic of the league in the past, was leading the study.

The crux of the report seems to be the fact that the league has concerns over Stern’s objectivity because he vehemently opposed the NFL’s $765 million concussion settlement with the players.

That seems logical on the surface, but Stern was vetted by the the NIH, passed a scientific-merit review, and has actually admitted that concussion research is in its infancy. So, he hardly seems like an activist and while his opposition to the settlement can be construed as hostile to the NFL, it was really just an attempt to educate as many people as possible.

“I don’t want to play an adversarial role,” Stern told the Associated Press at the time. “I want a settlement to go through. I just don’t want a settlement to go through without people understanding what it truly means.”

Also, if the NFL is still clandestinely controlling the purse strings, they are doing so in a rather inconsistent fashion because $6 million of the fund given to the FNIH was allocated to Dr. Ann McKee, who hasn’t exactly been in the NFL’s corner over the years.

It’s certainly understandable why people jump to conclusions when it comes to the NFL and concussion research because the league’s reluctance to admit the problem for so long is well-documented.

However, this report smacks of a manufactured controversy just days in front of the highly-anticipated release of the movie, “Concussion,” which attempts to tell the story of the NFL’s disinformation campaign against Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE.

To believe otherwise would mean the NIH, whose yearly budget was north of $30 billion a year at the time of the last census, is carrying the NFL’s water for an extra $30 million.

Does that make sense to you?

— John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen@phanaticmag.com or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also catch John this season on ESPN Southwest Florida every Monday at 3 PM ET; on ESPN Lexington every Thursday at 6:05 ET, and live every Tuesday from 2 to 6 PM ET at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City for the NFL Wraparound on ESPN South Jersey.

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