The Limits of Corporate Giving: Why the NIH Broke Up with the NFL

photo:  Victor Moussa/shutterstock

photo:  Victor Moussa/shutterstock

Shortly after former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 43, the NFL announced that it was donating $30 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The funds would go to research concussions and degenerative brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head injuries and one from which Seau suffered.

Embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell explained in a press release that the donation was intended as part of the NFL’s “continuing effort to try to pioneer research that is going on to improve the safety of our players.” The funds also helped establish the Sports and Health Research Program within the NIH. With the NFL's funding, the program supports broad-based brain and brain injury research, but as it turns out, the term “broad-based” means something different to the NFL than it does to the NIH. More specifically, the NFL doesn’t want to support anything that paints the league in a negative light. Which is just one of the reasons the two organizations are now parting ways. 

The NIH is officially dissolving its partnership with the NFL at the end of this month. The relationship between the two organizations has been so tumultuous over the past five years that the NIH is leaving $16 million on the table and walking away. The NIH reportedly has no plans to spend the remaining funds from the original $30 million commitment made by the league in 2012.

Related: An Unlikely Funder Moving the Ball on Neuroscience Research: The NFL

The news of the split between the NIH and the NFL is not particularly surprising. According to an ESPN report, the NIH decided to let the agreement expire months ago—leaving $16 million of the donation unused—due in part to a “bitter dispute in 2015 in which the NFL backed out of a major study that had been awarded to a researcher who had been critical of the league.” As reported by the New York Times at the time, the NIH study in question linked CTE and degenerative brain disease to head hits in contact sports. 

The NFL's overall integrity was also tarnished by a 2016 congressional committee's findings determining that the league was improperly attempting to guide independent government research toward physicians who were associated with the league. Meanwhile, it's worth mentioning the release of an updated study of football players finding that 110 of 111 participating players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The NIH will continue to fund concussion research directly and hasn’t given up on the NFL altogether. It is, however, throwing just a little bit of shade the league’s way, stating, “If the NFL wishes to continue to support research at the NIH, a simple donation to the NIH Gift Fund to support research on sports medicine would be favorably viewed... as long as the terms provided broad latitude in decisions about specific research programs.”

The failure of the NFL-NIH funding partnership is disappointing, especially given that new neuroscience research is now more difficult to fund amid flat government research budgets. With professional football players comprising a large portion of the total number of individuals suffering from CTE, the league should take some responsibility for learning more about this condition. Certainly, it can afford to fund such research, given that the 32 franchises in the NFL have an estimated combined value of nearly $75 billion.

That said, it's not often we see corporate funders giving out grant dollars to bankroll research that may threaten their business models in a fundamental way—or expose them to major liabilities from civil suits. For all the good that corporate philanthropy does in the world, such giving tends to be aligned with the bottom line in one way or another. Typically, the only time companies give millions to clean up a problem they have caused is when they are compelled to by government settlements. And unfortunately, there is a long history of corporations using their giving to obfuscate the real causes of problems—such as industry funding of compromised research on tobacco, sugar, climate change and more. 

One bright spot in the philanthropic story on concussion research is Paul Allen's contribution to this field. Allen, of course, is a longtime funder of brain science—having established the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003 and committed $500 million to the institute in order to gain a better understanding of the brain, brain health, and brain disease. He's also owner of the Seattle Seahawks. Earlier this year, the Paul G. Allen Foundation awarded a $9.25 million grant to a team of University of Pennsylvania researchers.

The funding supports a comprehensive study into exactly what happens to the brain after suffering a concussion. Ultimately, the research aims to help the medical and scientific community gain deeper understanding of brain injuries and determine “more effective methods of preventing and treating concussions.”