A new report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines has suggested that the NFL, one of the largest funders of brain research in the United States, has worked to subtly influence research efforts and downplay the link between football and traumatic brain injury.
While the NFL donates more than $100 million to research that seems altruistic on the surface, the organization has attempted to funnel much of that money back to scientists with NFL affiliations. Furthermore, the investigation has revealed that they have reneged on contributions when researchers have come up with data that the NFL didn’t like. In light of this information, some are even comparing the NFL to Big Tobacco in the days when cigarette manufacturers spent millions to fund studies and research that denied the links between cigarette smoking and severe health consequences.
The latest issue to arise concerns the use of impact-tracking sensors in football players’ helmets, which, although shown to be 96 percent accurate at detecting the location and severity of an impact, have been rejected by NFL researchers as “flawed” and not fit for use. According to a biomedical engineer at Purdue University, the idea that the sensors should not be used at all simply because they do not provide 100 percent accuracy is the wrong way to go about science. The helmets, even with the 4 percent margin of error, still provide invaluable information about how often players get hit during practice and games.
2014 Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Study
Another example of the NFL’s reluctance to face scientific fact came in 2014, when the league initially agreed to provide $16 million in funding to a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can lead to depression, aggression, and dementia, is thought to be caused by repeated subconcussive and concussive blows to the head. As the condition is currently only diagnosed after death, the aim of the study was to see if CTE could be detected in living people.
After the National Institute of Health announced the funding opportunity, NFL-affiliated scientists applied for the funding necessary to conduct the study themselves. The NIH, however, decided to award the money to a group of independent researchers who hypothesized openly that many professional football players were likely living with CTE. The NFL attempted to challenge this decision, but when the NIH wouldn’t budge, they ultimately backed out of funding the research.
Meanwhile, hundreds of professional athletes continue to suffer the effects of repeated head traumas leading to lasting health consequences. As long as NFL researchers continue to deny the connection between high-contact sports and head injuries, and quibble over ways to solve the problem, players will continue to be the ones to suffer for it.