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NFL fights back after claim that it cut concussion study funds

Commissioner Roger Goodell denied that the NFL pulled back its financial commitment to NIH research funds.
Commissioner Roger Goodell denied that the NFL pulled back its financial commitment to NIH research funds.Bob Leverone/Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The NFL’s spring owners meetings Tuesday were not the most exciting affair. There was no official talk about a Raiders relocation to Las Vegas, no Deflategate fireworks, and no major rules changes being proposed.

But there were still a few interesting lessons learned when most of the 32 NFL owners convened. Here is what we learned:

1. The NFL is fighting back against the accusation that it tried to improperly steer concussion research funds.

Monday, the Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report claiming that at least a half-dozen NFL health officials improperly tried to influence a government study on football and brain disease.


The report accused the NFL of backing out of an agreement to use $16 million of a $30 million gift to pay for a study by the National Institutes of Health because the researcher tabbed to lead the study, Boston University’s Robert Stern, has been a vocal critic of the NFL. The report said that taxpayers bore the costs instead.

Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell denied that the NFL pulled back its financial commitment and took umbrage with the report’s findings, as well as the congressmen issuing their report before contacting anyone from the NFL about it.

“We have our commitment of $30 million to the NIH. We’re not pulling that back one bit,” Goodell said. “We continue to focus on things that our advisers believe are important to study. Ultimately, it’s the NIH’s decision . . . We’re not done yet. I put that as a very important concern for us going forward.”

“The congressmen issued their report without even talking to any of our advisers. I don’t think that’s appropriate, I don’t think that’s the right way to do things.”

Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the co-chairman of the NFL’s committee on brain injuries, relayed a similar sentiment to USA Today in response to the congressional report. The report claimed that Ellenbogen was one of the NFL’s “primary advocates” opposing Stern.


“I never talked to Congress. No one ever asked me my opinion,” he told USA Today. “This is a lesson I guess: Big Government can crush you if you disagree with them. . . . Guilty until proven innocent, huh?”

“We know there are long-term risks of traumatic brain injury, and we need to know the incidence and prevalence. Is it 1 in a million or is it 100 in a million? That was the entire thing that got blown up.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank said that the owners spent a significant time Tuesday talking about health and safety, and believe that the congressional report and subsequent report by ESPN was one-sided and imbalanced.

“I think the league is doing everything it can possibly do,” Blank said.

“Sometimes the media is not always balanced in the way things are reported, and I think the league probably needs to do more in communicating the research that it’s supporting and its side of some of the positions and arguments that have been taken.”

The NFL in the past would often stick its head in the sand and hope that this type of negative story goes away on its own. But given the tenor of Tuesday’s comments, expect the NFL to continue to vociferously defend themselves on this issue in the coming days.


2. If you build it, the Super Bowl will come.

That message was sent loud and clear Tuesday when the NFL owners voted on the sites for Super Bowls LIII (in 2019), LIV, and LV.

The winners were, in order: Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles. What do all three cities have in common? The owners of their football teams all are making significant investments of their own money into brand-new or renovated football stadiums.

In Atlanta, private funding will pay for more than half of the $1.4 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium that is set to open in 2017. Blank also pledged to cover any cost overruns. In Miami, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross spent $500 million of his own money to renovate Sun Life Stadium, including the construction of a canopy over the seating bowl by 2017 to protect fans from rain and sun. And in Los Angeles, Rams owner Stan Kroenke will be building a football mecca that is expected to cost him between $2.6 billion and $3 billion, all privately funded.

Those three cities beat out New Orleans, which hosted the Super Bowl in 2012 after undergoing $600 million in renovations, and Tampa Bay, whose stadium is undergoing a more modest $100 million renovation.

The 2018 Super Bowl is also going to be played in frigid Minneapolis, which is opening a $1 billion stadium this year.

“The other owners, they realize to build a stadium today is a huge capital investment. The league does its part to support it,” Blank said. “I think the message it also sends to communities that are considering other NFL stadiums, this is going to be important in terms of Super Bowls. A Super Bowl is — if not the biggest event — one of the biggest events in the world in terms of a sport opportunity. It’s the right message.”


Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he’d like to have a Super Bowl come to Foxborough, but obviously he’s not going to be building a new stadium any time soon.

3. Instant replay rules are still confusing.

The owners passed a rule trying to clarify what can and can’t be reviewed by replay. The system wasn’t changed much, but the league office will have more communication with the on-field officials about administrative errors – ball placement, the spot of a foul, status of the game clock, and so on.

Seems simple enough. But then the lawyers get involved and actually draft the rules.

For example:

“If an on-field ruling of a deal ball (down by contact, out of bounds, or incomplete forward pass) is changed, the ball belongs to the recovering player at the spot of the recovery, and any advance is nullified. The recovery must occur in the continuing action following the loss of possession. If the referee does not have clear and obvious visual evidence as to which player recovered the loose ball, or that the ball went out of bounds, the ruling on the field will stand.”

Got that? Didn’t think so.


4. The NFL isn’t too concerned with Tom Brady’s appeal of the appeal.

I asked Goodell if he had any comment to the appeal filed by the NFL Players Association on Brady’s behalf Monday.

“I respect the NFLPA’s ability to appeal if they chose to do that,” he said. “That’s a matter for the lawyers. We’ll see how things progress, but I’m really not focused on that at all.”

Translation: We’ve got a commanding lead, and we’re not too worried about it.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.