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February 05, 2016

NFL Brain-Research Funds Went to League-Linked Scientists

The National Football League has steered millions of dollars in grants for studies of traumatic brain injuries to researchers with ties to the organization, according to an ESPN investigation. The network's "Outside the Lines" program reports that the NFL and corporate partners awarded nearly $4 million for projects involving Richard Ellenbogen, co-chair of the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and other doctors who serve as advisers on player health and safety.

The NFL, which has grappled with controversy over concussions and long-term brain injuries suffered by players, is now one of the nation's biggest financial backers of brain research. In 2012, the league pledged $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for such work. ESPN alleges that NIH decided to use taxpayer funds rather than the gift to cover a $16 million study after the league raised objections about the grant going to an researcher who has criticized the NFL. A doctor who chairs a league subcommittee on safety had led a competing proposal for the grant.

Dr. Ellenbogen disputed the notion that the league is aiming to influence research on brain injuries. "What you are seeing is just how well-intentioned scientists debate the different approaches, how competitive the grants are, and fortunately how much interest there is in this research," he wrote in an email to ESPN. "This is not about the NFL stopping [brain research]. Quite the opposite."