The Pro Football Concussion Report

A Fan's Look at Head Injuries and the Concussion Crisis in Football

Can University Research Really Be Independent?

Can university researchers be trusted?


A recent New York Times story revealed that an NFL league doctor had attempted to “correct” a CDC workplace safety fact sheet about football concussions and CTE (the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The doctor pointed out that any reference to CTE should be removed because it was “not fully understood” and because it was not listed on the death certificates of the retired NFL players in the study and thus lacked “epidemiological validity.” This has created some controversy, but brings to light a bigger issue. How does the public know which medical experts to trust?

In the past oil shale companies (fracking)GMO manufacturers (Monsanto), the tobacco industry (Phillip Morris, et al) and its law firm (Covington and Burling) have been accused of organizing and funding biased scientific research. Maybe the research is performed with industry funds, or perhaps the researcher or principal investigator (P.I.) as these businesses call them, also sits on the board of a company within the industry funding the research. Even the NFL has come under fire for the work of their 1994-2009 Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee. The MTBI committee is fingered in every single concussion lawsuit against the NFL. But what about the NFL’s new and improved MTBI committee, the 35 member Head, Neck and Spine Committee? And what about the millions of dollars flowing from the NFL and NFLPA to universities and their affiliated PhDs?  Can the “independent” conclusions of these medical and science experts be trusted?

The NFL and the NFLPA receive many accolades (and headlines) for the significant financing they provide for concussion and brain injury research. $30 million to National Institutes of Health, $100 million to Harvard Medical School, joint ventures with GE and the U.S. Army and many more smaller grants available to “non-profit educational and research institutions within the United States of America.”  These grants will result in a lot of the published information that the public will see over the next few years regarding brain injuries in sports. It’s unlikely that any other company, organization or industry is funding university research on concussions to the extent that professional football does.

The NFL’s money touches virtually all of the scientists names that we see when we’re hearing quotes from experts who are working on the problem of football concussions. Falling under this giant funding umbrella are the popular NFL medical expert voices like Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, Dr. Margot Putukian, and Dr. Stanley Herring who each sit on NFL committees and are quoted frequently in the media, as well as the more lab research quotable sources such as Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Ann McKee, Harvard’s Dr. William Meehan and the University of North Carolina’s Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz.  Although each of these experts may truly be an honest medical and science practioner sincerely pursuing the truth regarding brain injuries and football, under what stretch of the imagination could their words or research work be considered independent?  Bias may be a different matter, but do folks who work for Coke drink Pepsi? Do people that work for R.J. Reynolds think smoking is bad for you? There must be some sort of natural human benevolence toward those who are paying for your dinner, car, and trips to Switzerland.

For the university researchers and professors, grants made to the university may contribute to or supplement professor salaries who are listed on the grant, pay staff, as well as contribute to office and lab space, equipment, computers and computer software, travel expenses, symposiums, and cost of presentations. Basically, each grant is like establishing a business, complete with goals and objectives, budgets, staff, salaries, milestones and reviews. The universities depend upon their professors and researchers to line up grants and bring in new money.  The school may take half the money off the top to pay overhead costs while the P.I. budgets the balance of the funds to meet the description and goals articulated in the winning grant proposal. Publish or perish. A professor working without a grant can’t possibly be as valuable to a university as a professor who’s attracting millions of dollars of funding from private sources. Plus, the funding organization gets the publicity and credibility of having a big science name or institution attached to research that will hopefully advocate to their benefit.
A win-win-win.


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