Last month the late actor and all pro defensive end Bubba Smith became the 90th former NFL player the Boston University Brain Bank found had chronic traumatic encephaly — the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma. The NFL agreed to fund CTE research, but a study by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, whose ranking member is Representative Frank Pallone, found the NFL instead withheld funding and attempted to influence the outcome of the research. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently had the chance to ask him how the NFL tried to do that.
Williams: Congressman, how did the NFL try to influence the current NIH concussion research?
Pallone: Well, basically what they did is they, when they found out that Boston University, Dr. Stern, was going to be awarded the grant to do the research, they did not like him because he had been critical of the NFL in the past. So they essentially tried to contact the NFL and persuade them not to give him the grant and have the grant given to scientists who were more favorable to them. So that’s totally not allowed under the law. There’s a separate foundation set up to accept research money from private entities called the Foundation for NIH and that was set up to separate them from the NIH and the grant decisions.
Williams: You’ve also criticized the Foundation for the NIH, right?
Pallone: Right. In other words there should not have been any communications between the NFL and the NIH. The NIH eventually decided that they were going to fund the research through taxpayer funds and not take the money from the NFL because they didn’t want it tainted in any way from the NFL.
Williams: Did you find in your study that the NFL has a history of trying to minimize long-term effects of concussion on their players?
Pallone: Not only concussion, but so many different things. There’s a long history of trying to kind of, you know, bury information on anything. You remember with the drug problems, with off field behavior. There’s been so many cases like that it reminds me in many ways of what the tobacco industry did about smoking, you know, where they didn’t want, for a long time they denied there was any problem with smoking and they did whatever they could as long as they could to prevent any kind of research conclusions that said that it was a problem.
Williams: Are you saying the NFL is the new tobacco industry?
Pallone: Well I think it’s starting to change. They may have been in the past, but I think they’re starting to learn their lesson. As you know we had a forum on concussion and a few months ago the NFL representative actually admitted for the first time that concussions were a problem and they were hurting the players. So, I think you’re starting to see them reluctantly come around to accept the fact that concussions are a problem and they need to do research and deal with it. But it’s been sort of kicking and screaming, to be honest.
Williams: Do you expect them to get serious about this research? Is there any action to be taken against the NFL?
Pallone: Well, no. What we’re trying to do now is with this investigative report we did, we had a bunch of conclusions but the two most important, Mary Alice, were one, that we don’t want any outside influence over who gets these grants. And secondly, we want the NFL to agree to provide the $30 million for additional research without having the ability to influence who gets the grants. So we do want them to spend the money, and they say they will, but again that hasn’t happened yet.
Williams: Has the CTE research ultimately been completed and where did the funding end up coming from?
Pallone: The research is being done now and to my knowledge has not been completed. It’s taxpayer funded now because the NIH didn’t want to get involved with this issue whether or not this NFL money was influencing the outcome. But you know, Mary Alice, please there’s so much more that needs to be done with regard to concussion. The NFL could be financing this for a long time. One of the things that we’re worried about now are youth, kids, you know, non-professional, college, high school or even younger involved who play Pop Warner, whatever. There’s so many. We’re very concerned that there hasn’t been a lot of research on younger people, you know, non-professional players. Also, girls, you know. What the impact is on girls in other sports. There’s not a lot of research on concussion on any sports related to women or young girls.