Untitled design (1)In a recent report issued by the Democratic Committee staff of the U. S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the National Football League (NFL) was identified as interfering with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its process for funding brain-injury research. The key issue is whether the NIH can protect its peer-review approach, or whether private entities like the NFL can affect the integrity of the NIH process.

The report concludes that the NIH was successful in fending off the NFL’s attempts to influence the NIH grant-making. Per the report, the NFL undertook improper efforts with the knowledge of the NFL’s medical director, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, who is also chief of Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. Brigham & Women’s Hospital is owned by Partners HealthCare, which employs 68,000 healthcare professionals, including clinical social workers.

The 91-page report describes the efforts at influencing the NIH by the NFL, whose 30 owners and multi-billion dollar football, media, and merchandise enterprise make it one of the most powerful and visible business interests in the United States. Per the report, the NFL’s actions violate policies that prohibit private donors from interfering with NIH decision-making, and are part of a “long-standing pattern of attempts” to do so.

In terms of research and treatment of brain injury, the NIH is the nation’s most important source of programs and funding. Veterans are among the primary beneficiaries of the NIH’s work, although NHL football has become a lightning-rod for public awareness. As the nation’s primary healthcare funder, the NIH supports research on and treatment of tens of thousands of civilians, and especially of veterans who suffer from brain injury and receive their care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The NFL’s attempts to divert the work of the NIH with regard to brain injury may be seen as affecting the understanding and treatment of the entire class of Americans who suffer from brain injury.

Among other findings, the panel discovered that the NFL’s own consultant on brain injuries, Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen of Seattle Children’s Hospital, applied for a NIH grant funded by the NFL in which he stood to benefit personally. Ellenbogen had opposed the awarding of NIH-NFL funds to a group led by Boston University’s CTE Center, which previously had established the scientific connection between playing football and brain injury. NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins was not intimidated by the NFL, which retaliated by withdrawing $16 million of a grant of $31 million that it had made to the NIH in 2012. U. S. taxpayers thus became the funders of the research that the NFL had promised to underwrite.

Clinical social workers are committed to putting the interests of the clients first, including clients and families affected by brain injury, whatever its causes. It would seem that the funding of federal NIH programs by private entities like the NFL and the attempts by private entities to influence the NIH as to how and to whom it awards funding are direct challenges to the values of clinical social workers and of all healthcare professionals.


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