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NFL Contributes $0 to BU Head Trauma Study

The National Football League (NFL) has reneged on its decision to fund a grant to study brain injuries (chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE) in living football players, according to a report from ESPN’s Outside the Lines. The $30 million research grant was originally given to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by the NFL in 2012. Instead, $16 million from elsewhere will go toward the research with no league involvement.

However, ESPN is reporting that an NIH official said the NFL retained “veto power” over grant projects, and vetoed the study when it learned a professor of neurology at Boston University would be the lead researcher. Sources say the NFL raised concerns about the professor’s objectivity, despite a vetting process by the NIH, who will now fund the study.

The announcement of the renege came just days before the release of the movie, “Concussion,”—a film featuring Will Smith as real-life Doctor Bennet Omalu who discovers a link between American football and a neurodegenerative disease that causes problems with thinking (cognition), mood and behavior. Omalu discovered the link after performing dozens of autopsies on former NFL players that had died with symptoms of dementia, delusion, paranoia, explosive behavior and loss of memory. The movie is said to depict the NFL as denying and trying to refute Omalu’s message about the need to make football safer when it comes to concussions.

When the League’s “unrestricted” $30 million donation to the NIH was announced in 2012, the agency said the money came “with no strings attached.” In 2014, an NIH official clarified to ESPN’s Outside the Lines that the $30 million gift was contingent on the League being able to veto decisions on projects that the money was funding. The timing of the $16 million grant announcement and the NFL’s noninvolvement just further hurts the NFL’s reputation when it comes to head trauma, as the spotlight is even brighter after the movies release.

When faced with a crisis or potential reputational damage, we recommend fighting it head on. No pun intended. Own your truth and tell your story. So far, there is little transparency around this issue with the NFL. When did the NFL know about the risks of concussions? Why has the NFL repeatedly refuted studies on the impact of concussions? Why have they also defended their own studies thought to be questionable (as reported by The New York Times)? The inability of doctors to diagnose CTE in living patients has held up the settlement between the NFL and all retired players (a reported $4 million per player).

The NFL has lost control of their message. With “Concussion” showcasing the topic of head trauma in the NFL, they will be thrust further into the spotlight and realm of speculation.

The NFL needs to get ahead by retaking control of the narrative. Or else, they risk looking like Big Tobacco, denying cigarettes cause cancer. Be part of the solution, not the problem.


For more information regarding reputation management, do not hesitate to contact Fallston Group at 410.420.2001 or by email at info@fallstongroup.com.

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