The Real Story behind the NFL Players’ Association “$100 Million Research Grant” to Harvard Medical School

The NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) recently announced that it would provide a $100 million grant to Harvard Medical School to fund research aimed at improving the health and safety of NFL players.  Now, an “Outside the Lines” report has revealed that the NFLPA never intended to pay the entire grant amount.  Instead, the NFLPA’s public announcement – conveniently timed on the night before the Super Bowl for maximum press coverage – appears to have been a PR stunt aimed at pressuring the NFL into fronting half of the grant money.  The league is now refusing to do so, leaving Harvard wondering how its research program will ultimately receive the promised funding.

The issue of NFL player safety remains a noted matter of public concern as the massive multi-district concussion litigation against the league continues to struggle through contentious settlement talks.  In that litigation, over 4,500 former players sued the league for intentionally downplaying the risks of concussions and concealing the connection between playing-related head injuries and later-life cognitive decline.

Despite refusing to commit dollars to the highly publicized Harvard study, the league has committed to financing some player health-related research initiatives, including several ongoing studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Dr. Walter Korishetz, a neurologist at the NIH, commented that, “The stuff we’re doing, this is life-threatening brain degeneration we’re talking about . . . .  This is incredibly important to anybody who engages in activities that involve frequent head trauma, and that includes the NFL.  What we’re going to find is going to have big implications.”  In all, the NFL has donated at least $50 million in research dollars to finance studies aimed at improving diagnosis techniques for head trauma related ailments.

For now, it appears that the Harvard study will receive $5.5 million per year from the NFLPA – provided that the program reaches performance benchmarks set by the union.  In discussing the amount of funding that would ultimately go to the school, Sean Sansiveri, a lawyer for the NFLPA, stated, “It really depends on how successful they are . . . .  If we’re not happy with the work at any point, we can just turn off any funding.”  Whether or not the NFL will provide any funds to the Harvard study has yet to be seen.

Some have speculated that the league doesn’t want to become overly involved with studies trying to link debilitating head injuries and football.  Eric Nauman, a Purdue University professor who has spent time studying the effects of football induced head trauma, noted, “The NFL they’re not necessarily in the business of the public good, they’re in their business . . . .  So I can understand why they might not be pushing some of the research.”

 Union, NFL split over research funds

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