August Klatt: Is the NFL Trying to Hide Something by Injecting Bias into Head Injury Science?

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I am pleased to host another student guest post, this time by August Klatt. This is the 2d student guest post this semester. You can see all the student guest posts from my “Monetary and Financial Theory” class at this link.

Behind the $100 million donated for brain research by the National Football League lies many question marks. Does NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell honestly want to reveal the long-term effects of head injuries or is this all a publicity stunt?

There is no doubt that football is one of the largest causes of concussions.Head trauma has been observed to cause serious long-term brain damage and diseases such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE was discovered by Neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was recently played by Will Smith in the new movie Concussion. A movie that clearly explained the dangers of head trauma, was highly critical of the NFL, and showed that there is still a lot of research that still needs to be done.

Former NFL players, such as Junior Seau have unfortunately been the victims of CTE. Seau shot himself in 2012 and when his brain was examined it was determined that he had this disease.CTE can cause depression and aggressive behavior. It was probably concussions while playing football that caused Seau’s awful disease and eventually led to his death. The death of Seau and the movie Concussionhave brought brain research into the spotlight recently and have raised questions about the NFL.

As these concussion issues started to lead to critiques of the NFL, the league stepped up as the largest contributor of donations for brain research. This looks like the NFL is trying to help uncover the risks of concussions, but it might be a little more than that. The NFL has typically funded research projects with “league-friendly scientists.” Roger Goodell and the National Football League know that the public will continue to push for more research, so if it’s going to happen, it might as well be on their terms.

In an article on ESPN by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, the NFL agreed to co-sponsor a significant study in 2012 with the National Institute of Health. This study was designed to research the connection between football and long-term brain damage. Once the NIH awarded the study to Dr. Robert Stern, the NFL funding disappeared. Dr. Robert Stern is famously known for critiquing the National Football League and accusing them of covering up links between brain damage and football, which eventually led to a court settlement.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines did a report on how the NFL has used its power to influence concussion research. In an article also written by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, they discuss the results of this report by saying:

In at least six instances over the past year years, NFL-affiliated grants totaling several million dollars have gone to scientists of institutions directly connected to the league, the data shows. The NFL and its partners awarded nearly $4 million for projects tied to the co-chairman of its powerful Head, Neck and Spine Committee Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, including a $2.5 million concussions clinic affiliated with Ellenbogen and another top NFL advisor.

While the NFL has made a step in the right direction by pouring money into this research, their hands are too close to it all. I agree with the Wall Street Journal opinion article by Roger Pielke Jr. that the “NFL needs distance from its brain-injury funding.” If the NFL wants to ensure that their $100 million is going towards credible and useful research then they need to let the National Institute of Health allocate the money without any stipulations. This is the only way that we can maximize the social benefit of the brain research contributions.

With the NFL awarding concussion research to league-friendly scientists, any results that suggest football not having a negative effect on the brain are automatically discredited by many. The public has such a vested interest in brain injuries now that the true research is bound to get out. If the NFL has nothing to hide, then putting the funding in the hands of the NIH shouldn’t bother them. If they are trying to hide something and influence the research then they better stop now before they drown themselves in billions of dollars worth of lawsuits.