NFL Doc Who Dismissed Head Injuries Retires

     (CN) — National Football League medical adviser Elliot Pellman — who routinely dismissed the connection between concussions and football — will retire and be replaced, according to a letter league chief Roger Goodell sent to club executives.
     The embattled Pellman will retire after a contentious 30-year career with the NFL, where the rheumatologist served as New York Jets team doctor and also chairman of league’s powerful research arm Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee.
     Goodell made the decision to prompt Pellman into retirement after continued criticism over the league’s position that football does not necessarily lead to concussions, and recent reports that the some in the NFL attempted to influence a study by the National Institutes of Health.
     “As we add additional full-time medical resources to our team, it is important to recognize and express our gratitude to Dr. Elliot Pellman, who is retiring after nearly 30 years of service, first to the New York Jets and then to the NFL,” Goodell’s memo said. “We thank Dr. Pellman for his dedicated service to the game and for his many contributions to the NFL and our clubs, and appreciate his willingness to aid in this transition over the next few months.”
     As the chairman of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, Pellman spent two decades overseeing studies that downplayed the significance of concussions, while he and his colleagues pressured independent scientists who examined the link between football and brain damage.
     The committee, formed in 1994 by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, consisted primarily of NFL trainers and doctors.
     A 2013 story by ESPN’s Outside the Lines revealed that Pellman had served for years as Tagliabue’s personal physician. An earlier ESPN piece described how Pellman implemented the questionable conclusions of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee while serving as Jets team doctor and often allowed concussed players to reenter games.
     And in 2005, The New York Times revealed that Pellman had embellished his credentials and failed to disclose that he attended a medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico.
     Despite resigning as chairman soon after the Times article was published, Pellman continued to serve on the committee.
     Pressure from Congress in 2010 compelled Goodell to disband the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, replacing it with the Head, Neck and Spine committee. Members of the new committee said that they would not use any of the previous study, calling the previous committee’s work “infected.”
     Though Pellman was removed from the committee, he maintained a role as medical adviser within the league offices to the surprise of many researchers.
     Goodell’s letter outlined the duties of the new chief medical officer, which include ensuring that NFL research funds are spent “in an effective and targeted way.”
     “We intend to hire a highly credentialed physician to serve as chief medical officer and work in the league office on a full-time basis,” Goodell wrote. “This individual will be responsible for working with our team medical staffs, the players’ association and our medical committees, as well as the broader independent scientific and medical communities.”
     The NFL will begin its search for a new chief medical officer this week led by Betsy Nabel, the league’s chief health and medical adviser.
     In May, a congressional report concluded that NFL officials had pressured the NIH to strip a $16 million project from Robert Stern, a Boston University researcher.
     The report claims that at least a half-dozen top NFL health officials attempted to influence the major U.S. government study on brain disease and football.
     The league had given the NIH a $30 million “unrestricted gift” that would pay for the study. But the NIH’s decision to keep Stern led the NFL to back out of a signed agreement to pay for the study, according to the report.
     The report released by the Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce chronicles several attempts by the NFL to pressure the NIH into bringing on Richard Ellenbogen, the co-chairman of the league’s committee on brain injuries.
     While he had applied for the same grant, Ellenbogen and other NFL officials referenced examples of conflicts of interest in regard to Stern, including that a grant reviewer had worked on a scientific paper with one of his colleagues.
     They also objected to Stern based on his past criticism of the NFL and his perceived bias against the league.
     “The NFL’s interactions with NIH and approach to funding the Boston University study fit a longstanding pattern of attempts to influence the scientific understanding of the consequences of repeated head trauma,” the report said.
     A five-page report that outlined the study and its objectives was sent to the NFL, which agreed to the terms and committed $16,325,242 in funding — almost the entire budget. NFL general counsel Jeff Pash and representatives of the NIH and the Foundation for the NIH, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to help maintain the NIH’s independence, signed the document.
     The Foundation for the NIH did not prevent the NFL from “circumventing appropriate protocols for communication, attempting to influence NIH’s selection of grant recipients and ultimately violating its obligation to provide funding for the grant,” the report said.
     “This experience has reinforced the importance of clear lines of communication between NIH and the Foundation for the NIH. NIH has already taken a number of important steps to clarify its roles and responsibilities in agreements with the foundation and outside donors, in order to ensure that the science is free of even the perception of inappropriate outside influence,” the NIH said in a statement Tuesday before Pellman’s retirement was announced.
     Pellman, Nagel and Kevin Guskiewicz, chair of the NFL’s Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules, were also mentioned in the report.
     Walter Koroshetz, the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes for the NIH, said that he “was aware of no other instance” in which a donor attempted to disrupt the NIH grant selection process.

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