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Congress probes NFL intervention into selection of brain researcher


From time to time, Congress gets interested in the activities of the NFL. Given that this interest could, in theory, eventually result in the creation of a federal agency charged with the oversight of football and other pro sports, the NFL typically tends to take notice.

Via ESPN’s Outside the Lines, four members of Congress recently asked the NFL to provide documents and other information regarding efforts to intervene in the selection of a researcher at Boston University who would lead a major study on the connection between football and brain disease.

The letter from Representatives Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) takes aim an alleged “monthslong” campaign by the NFL to block the selection of Dr. Robert Stern and replace him with researchers affiliated with the NFL.

“Efforts by outside entities to . . . exercise influence over the selection of NIH research applicants are troubling, and we are committed to a full understanding of the sequence of events that led to this dispute,” the letter explains.

The issue arises from the NFL’s about-face regarding a $30 million “unrestricted gift” that disappeared after the National Institutes of Health rejected the league’s contention that Dr. Stern was biased and that his selection to run a $16 million study was undermined by a conflict of interest.

The study in question was aimed at diagnosing Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy in living patients -- a development that could become very expensive for the NFL in connection with a now-unrestricted pool of money for a concussion settlement that pays benefits to deceased players with CTE but that gives nothing to living players with CTE, due in large part to the fact that there’s no way to currently detect CTE in living patients.

So if Dr. Stern were to develop a method for diagnosing CTE in living patients, the NFL could end up spending a lot more than $30 million over the next several decades in payments to former players.

A league spokesman told ESPN that Commissioner Roger Goodell will respond to the letter, which seeks an explanation for the NFL’s decision to chime in on the study and the ultimate decision to pull the funding. Given the potential financial stakes and broader consequences, this story is far more intriguing and potentially impactful than the back-and-forth from Thursday regarding a New York Times article that really didn’t break new ground.