NFL’s Influence on Concussion Research Cannot be Overlooked, OTL Reports

In a recent Outside The Lines article posted earlier this month on ESPN.com, it was reported that the National Football League — under fire these days for its role in downplaying concussions and head trauma in professional sports — may be exerting inappropriate influence on scientific studies on concussions. The OTL article posits that this is not a new development either. According to the piece, the NFL has had its hand in funding scientific studies regarding concussions and their long-term effects since the mid-1990s. However, these studies have specifically been tainted as they were funded by the NFL for the sole purpose of limiting the public’s knowledge of the dangers of concussions and their relationship/connection directly to playing football.

According to the report, which interviewed a significant number of doctors and brain specialists, both with and without ties to the NFL, much of the league’s funding over the last two decades has gone to NFL-friendly doctors and organizations. For example, in the past two years, NFL-affiliated grants totaling several million dollars have gone to scientists or institutions directly connected to the league, including for projects tied to the co-chairman of its “Head, Neck and Spine Committee,” which oversees medical issues related to those areas of the body in football players. Supposedly, the “Head, Neck and Spine Committee” is developing new research techniques to studying concussions and, more importantly, their role in the game.

But for many, the idea that the NFL is donating the bulk of its money on the subject to its own doctors and its own specialists clouds the independence of it all. According to the report, there are those in the industry worried that the NFL’s influence will make the research “football friendly.” For many researchers, grants are the only way they can afford to continue studying concussions and head trauma; if the NFL is donating the most money, then it’s likely it will want to donate to the institutions who it can control the most. The authors parallel this idea directly to Big Tobacco’s attempt in the twentieth century to control scientific studies into proving smoking is not harmful. Obviously, if the dangers are really there and can be proven, the public is going to want to hear the real answers, and the court of public opinion is not going to be friendly, in this case, to the NFL if it’s shown it has been trying to cover up/downplay the actual risks concussions pose in playing football.

Promised grant money being taken away, biased advisors establishing impossible standards for conducting research, independent scientists changing their tune on the possible dangers of concussions in football as soon as they get a taste of that sweet, sweet grant money — all of these are the sort of topics touched on by the OTL article.

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