‘How Federal Tax Dollars Rigged Sports Concussion Research’ (full text)

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[originally published 10/26/11 at http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/How_Federal_Tax_Dollars_Rigged_Sports_Concussion_Research_9636.html]


Led by Tom Udall of New Mexico, who evidently thinks bashing the Riddell Revolution football helmet video on YouTube is as American as Mom and apple pie, the Senate Commerce Committee last week held a two-hour hearing largely focused on how certain companies “are exploiting our growing concerns about sports concussions to market so-called ‘anti-concussion’ products to athletes and their parents.”

Somehow left off the list of targets was the expensive, disturbingly flawed, and absurdly hyped “ImPACT concussion management system,” as promoted by Wells Fargo and Dick’s Sporting Goods, and pimped to nervous school district athletic departments as a cure for the common long-term brain trauma. ImPACT (for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) was developed by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center researchers. Which is only appropriate, as UPMC is not just the “preferred health care and sports medicine provider” of the Pittsburgh Steelers – it’s also one of the team’s corporate sponsors!

One UPMC doctor, Steelers’ neurosurgeon and World Wrestling Entertainment medical director Joseph Maroon, couldn’t quack louder if he swam alongside Ping on the Yangtze River. The unregulated supplements for which Maroon is a paid endorser includes something called “Sports Brain Guard,” which came in for a rip at the Commerce Committee hearing – of course, without naming Maroon. Udall even politely avoided mentioning Maroon as the co-author of the article in Neurosurgery (the journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, which recently gave NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a standing ovation) whose shoddy and unscientific findings were the foundation of the Riddell company’s misleading helmet safety promos.

But the biggest lookaway pass was reserved for ImPACT, whose developers include Maroon and other UPMC doctors and clinicians. Among the latter are two neuropsychologists: Mark Lovell and Micky Collins. Lovell is the chairman of ImPACT Applications, Inc., as well as the director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

Earlier this week an investigation at my blog revealed that Lovell was the chief investigator listed on four research grants from the National Institutes of Health from 2002 to 2005, totaling $2,252,872. Neither Lovell nor UPMC returned messages asking them to reveal whether they disclosed their prima facie financial conflicts of interest to NIH. (Such disclosure is required under federal regulations, but NIH leaves up to the institution whether to make the disclosure public.) In 2007, back before ESPN, one of the NFL’s broadcast partners, toned down its concussion coverage, the network’s Peter Keating produced a story embarrassing Lovell and UPMC for their dual roles in both pushing ImPACT and consulting on league traumatic brain injury policy.

My new story goes further – showing how the money-hungry UPMC and its renowned researchers had their hands in the federal cookie jar from the very start, in ways that have shaped and limited the national concussion debate while also moving their own for-profit “solutions” to the front of the queue. In the wake of my post, there was an immediate outcry from sports and health writers and from Congress.

Just kidding. Our journalists can’t seem to get their noses past the over-under line for Sunday night. And in a canvass for comment from all 25 members of the Senate Commerce Committee (including California’s own Barbara Boxer), I got exactly zero responses. Are you ready for some denial?

In raising the issue of how our tax dollars have been perverted for the purchase of a particular outcome in the national sports concussion conversation, I am not acting as a libertarian, a populist, a know-it-all, or a know-nothing. In certain matters, government appropriately helps pick society’s winners and losers; if the well-being of millions of youth athletes isn’t one of those matters, then our depravity is complete.

In this case, the result toward which we are being led, like sheep, has been not only particular, but also particularly poor. The documented shortcomings of ImPACT, and the sharp tactics of the moneyed interests behind it, have helped achieve very nearly the opposite of “concussion awareness” and sound public policy.

Sure, the corruption behind this process goes much deeper than football, which alone cuts plenty deep in American culture. But pardon me for not finding that thought comforting.

Irvin Muchnick is at https://concussioninc.net and http://twitter.com/irvmuch. His ebook, DUERSON, will be published shortly.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick