The Pro Football Concussion Report

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

UPMC – Research or Marketing Partner?


The following is republished from an article that first appeared June 2013.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s recent concussion research paper, Incidence of Sports-Related Concussion among Youth Football Players Aged 8-12 Years continues a disturbing history of the UPMC providing their client grant source with a document that provides highly respected, high-powered marketing ammo for some commercial product. In this example, the NFL through its NFL Charities organization gave $100k to UPMC with Dr. Anthony Kontos as the Principle Investigator to conduct a study about concussions in youth football.

2 1/2 years later, Kontos and his university associates (including NFL MTBI committee member Joseph Maroon, MD) produced a much heralded, but also criticized paper. In alignment with other members of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee the NFL, the paper’s conclusions minimized concussion risk and even suggested that youth football engage in more full contact practice, not less.

In a video produced by UPMC to accompany release of their latest NFL-funded paper, co-author Micky Collins, PhD concludes, “in short, these findings would suggest that youth football is a safe sport.”  In addition, the paper has led to many NFL-friendly headlines such as USA Today’sStudy: Concussion risk low in football practice and PennLive’s It’s safer to practice good tackling than to limit contact. And make no mistake, the organizations that fund these types of research papers, make great efforts to track the media success of the outcome. During the 2011 Congressional Hearing on Concussions and the Marketing of Sports Equipment, Senator Tom Udall revealed a since-deleted PR news release from the #1 helmet manufacturer Riddell bragging about the media impact of their UPMC study:

“Riddell Revolution UPMC Media Campaign Highlights’’ video news release, created ‘‘over 60 million media impressions, nearly 150 television placements, over 100 newspaper clips, over 250 on-line placements, [and] 6 live sports radio interviews.’’

The Riddell paper probably stands out as UPMC’s most infamous grant-funded paper. It is at the heart of  multi-million dollar litigation involving Riddell and the Revolution helmet. In April, a jury in Colorado found that Riddell was responsible for a percentage of the $11.5 million in total damages awarded to a high school football player during a practice drill. Riddell has been accused of using the UPMC paper improperly to promote that the Riddell Revolution helmet reduced concussion risk by 31%. Although UPMC later somewhat distanced itself from Riddell’s take on the paper (also co-authored by Drs. Maroon and Collins) the paper does say:

“In terms of relative risk, Revolution wearers were 31 percent less likely to sustain a concussion compared to athletes who wore standard football helmets.”

Still, when questioned about the Riddell lawsuit by John Helyar of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Maroon and Lovell referred questions to Micky Collins, who headed the Riddell Revolution study team. Collins said he doesn’t see any conflict between their work on Riddell-funded research and their positions on the NFL concussion committee.

Collins added:

“We had no control of what Riddell did with the information. We’re scientists, not marketers.”

Another product with associated research paper support, the ImPACT concussion test, was actually developed by the in-house UPMC docs who’s names are on many of the other concussion papers produced by UPMC. Mark Lovell, PhD (former UPMC faculty member and NFL MTBI Committee member) founded the product along with UPMC’s Dr. Maroon. Today, they and Dr. Collins are partners in ImPACT Applications, Inc. the company that markets and sells the concussion test. Although the test is used and often touted in various UPMC research papers, the researchers/authors never state their position in the company as a conflict of interest. The ImPACT test is the most widely sold concussion test in the world. According to an ESPN story, the test has been sold to more than 7,000 pro teams, colleges, high schools and sports medicine centers from the University of Alabama to St. John’s College in Zimbabwe.

Several colleagues have taken great exception to the ImPACT test and the UPMC doctors’ huge success with the product.

“Through amazing marketing, the ImPACT guys have made their name synonymous with testing. But there’s a growing awareness that ImPACT doesn’t have the science behind it to do what it claims it does.”

~ William Barr, PhD, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at NYU and former team neuropsychologist for the New York Jets

“It’s a huge scam. They’ve done incredible marketing and they’ve managed to establish this test as the standard of care with no evidence that it has any benefit.”

~ Robert Sallis, MD, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine

Despite these past issues, the NFL/UPMC relationship flourishes and has flourished for 20 years. The researchers at the university enjoy gigs on NFL panels, financial study grants from the league and associated product manufacturers, speaking engagements and workshops, and ready access to the mainstream media reporting on the various doings of the NFL.


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