Can Brigham president be a fair NFL referee?

The NFL is a multibillion-dollar enterprise whose very existence depends on warding off any idea that those riches amount to blood money that comes at the expense of its oversized gladiators, despite mounting evidence of the gruesome toll the game exacts on players’ brains.

Given that, it’s hard to see how getting involved in the middle of the maelstrom as the industry’s chief medical officer would not lead to the sort of awkward position Dr. Elizabeth Nabel finds herself in.

Last year, amidst the growing controversy over NFL player safety, the well-regarded president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital was named the league’s first chief health and medical adviser. The NFL obviously hoped bringing the leader of a renowned Harvard teaching hospital on board would enhance the credibility of its player safety efforts. Instead, the move may be tarnishing Nabel’s reputation.

A congressional report issued this week says Nabel was part of an effort by NFL officials to steer a federal research project, to be funded by the NFL, away from a Boston University scientist, Robert Stern, who has been at the center of research establishing a link between head injuries among NFL players and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The report, from the Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says the NFL “inappropriately attempted to influence” the process of awarding a research grant for a massive study of concussions.

Nabel, in a statement to STAT, the Boston Globe-affiliated health and medical news site, said she “had no intention of influencing” the grant process. “I made my neutrality quite clear.”

Nabel sent at least two emails to the director of the office at the National Institutes of Health that was awarding the grant pointing out concerns about potential conflicts of interest among Boston University researchers seeking the grant funding. Stern had filed testimony in connection with a settlement reached between the NFL and its players’ association.

The NIH office reviewing the grant applications, however, concluded that Stern had no conflict and his proposal received the highest score of any vying for the $16 million grant. In the end, with the NFL wavering over its funding commitment  to the study, the NIH elected to fund the study itself.

The idea that NFL officials would look to influence the selection of researchers by raising questions about their potential conflicts of interest is ironic, to say the least.

Joan Vennochi says Nabel walked more of a “middle ground” than other NFL officials, while still “raising doubts about the Stern study group.” To that degree, says Vennochi, she may only have “played backup” for the NFL team looking to steer the project away from Stern.

Nonetheless, for Nabel and Brigham and Women’s, getting tangled up with a multibillion-industry that has an enormous interest in minimizing the health risks associated with its product increasingly looks like a bad call.




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