Congressional investigators working under Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) never spoke to a scientist they accuse of wrongdoing in a report accusing the NFL of attempting to manipulate the grant giving of the National Institutes of Health.
Described as a “bombshell report” by the Huffington Post, the investigation’s bombshell turns out to pertain to the investigators rather than the investigated. The congressional investigators never even bothered to talk to the pediatric neurosurgeon they talk at length about in negative terms in the report.
“The congressional people never called me,” Dr. Richard Ellenbogen of the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee tells Breitbart Sports. “They got one side of a story. Either this is America or this is not America. None of my committee was called.”
Breitbart Sports awaits a response from the office of the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee about why they never contacted a person playing such a prominent role in their investigation.
Despite never calling, emailing, or interviewing Ellenbogen during the six-month investigation, the Democrats of the House Energy and Commerce Committee levied serious ethical charges against him.
“Dr. [Richard] Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL advisor,” the report claims. “He had been part of a group that applied for the $16 million grant. After his group was not selected, Dr. Ellenbogen became one of the NFL’s primary advocates in expressing concerns surrounding the process with the [Boston University] grant selection.”
But Ellenbogen points out that he never applied for the grant in question, advocated that the NIH fund the proposed BU study on diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in several dozen deceased football players, in the living and the NFL-favored longitudinal study to determine effects of concussions over time that the federal agency ultimately rejected, and left a conference call to operate on a patient during the time that the report claims he took part in attempting to railroad the grant request of the controversial BU group known for its criticisms of the sport of football.
“I did not bid on the research grant—not true,” he tells Breitbart Sports. “No, I did not bid on it—factually false.”
He says he advised Kevin Guskiewicz, a former MacArthur “genius” fellow who applied for NIH funding for the proposed longitudinal study, but that he did not serve as an “investigator” and stood to gain nothing financially from Guskiewicz’s group receiving the grant. Ellenbogen says he doesn’t even know Robert Stern, the BU doctor the report alleges he tried to blackball, and insists he didn’t regard the Guskiewicz and Stern proposals as an either/or proposition.
“It was all factually incorrect,” he contends, “and if they would have asked me I would have told them.”
Ellenbogen notes that the due diligence lacking among politicians extended to the press. He points out that Deadspin, which called him “shameless” on Monday, never reached out to him to get his side of the story, either. “The New York Times has a picture of me—never called by the New York Times. What kind of reporting is that? Is that responsible reporting?”
“I have no control over NIH,” Ellenbogen says to charges that he attempted to influence the group’s granting process. “I have no control over the NFL. I’m not an employee. This is America and I’m allowed to give my opinion that two studies should be done.”
The chairman of the neurological surgery department at the University of Washington disputes the entire premise of the Democrats’ report that the NFL attempted to thwart the NIH from giving portions of the league’s $30 million 2012 grant to NIH to the Boston University group, whose leading figures speculate that every football player might someday suffer from CTE.
“The NFL already funded the BU study,” Ellenbogen points out. “It’s not like they tried to suppress the CTE study. They funded the study.”
Indeed, $6 million of the $14 million already allocated from the NFL’s $30 million grant went to research involving Boston University. The report notes that the league offered $2 million of its money for the additional BU study on diagnosing CTE in the living but the NIH opted to fund the project itself.
The NFL contends that its objections to the BU study centered around the research rather than the researchers. The league holds it gave the $30 million primarily to conduct a longitudinal study on the effect of concussions and not a study on developing a way to diagnose CTE in the living. Whereas the former proposal adds to scientific knowledge, the latter one also potentially adds to the bottom line of whatever set of doctors figure out how to diagnose a disease now done so only upon autopsy.
“Look at people in their twenties, thirties, and forties who played contact sports and compare them to a cohort who did not play contact sports,” Ellenbogen proposes as the “holy grail” of concussion research. “We owe them that answer for what are the long-term consequences to concussions.”
Ellenbogen believes the real scandal involves the lack of such a study more than a decade after the first discovery of CTE in a football player. As medical journal articles repeatedly point out, the reliance on anecdotes and the absence of a cross-sectional study makes the many statements on the causes of CTE and its prevalence in athletes speculation rather than science. Ellenbogen believes the NIH missed an opportunity to help answer the most pressing questions in his field.
“The most important study is a longitudinal study on the long-term effects of concussion on all comers,” he explained to Breitbart Sports. “I want to know what’s happened to a person who got a concussion at 15 doing ice hockey. I want to know what’s going to happen to him when he’s 20, when he’s 30, when he’s 40, when he’s 50.”
Ellenbogen, who specializes in pediatric neurosurgery, became heavily involved in the public policy of concussions after Zackery Lystedt, a 13-year-old football player, received brain damage after returning to play after receiving a concussion in a 2006 game. Ellenbogen helped pass the Zackery Lystedt Law in Washington, which begat similar laws in the remaining 49 states. “I’m out there to make sports safer and healthier,” he maintains. “Zack Lystedt was one of our patients.”
Dr. Ellenbogen says he received twenty patients yesterday when the news media made a villain of him, and their parents all asked a variant of the same question: “‘My son had a concussion playing hockey. What will happen to him?’ I’ve got to tell them, ‘I don’t know, I hope we do that study someday.’ That’s the world I live in.”
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.