Rule 2: Follow the Brain Specimen Trail

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The famous Rule 1 of investigative journalism is “follow the money.” The new relationship between the National Football League and our federal government’s National Institutes of Health – which could be summarized as “your tax dollars at work, and at sleep” – suggests a corollary.

The money, $30 million worth, was announced by the NFL as its gift to neuroscience research, out of the goodness of Roger Goodell’s heart. But the story really begins in May, when retired star Junior Seau put a .357 magnum to his chest and pulled the trigger. Like Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, Seau might have intended to preserve his brain for study.

Let’s put forth the ritual disclaimer that it is not possible to determine whether Seau’s suicide, or any suicide, can be directly or solely traceable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But the proximate cause, either probable or possible, is intuitive. In the game of public perception, the race to procure the survivors’ permission to study the brain was on.

The Boston research group headed by Dr. Robert Cantu has conducted at least the plurality of such studies among dead athletes from contact sports; they were the presumed frontrunner for the commission. But the dissident retired players’ community, along with other more aggressive critics of the NFL and the football establishment at all levels, clearly preferred Dr. Bennet Omalu, the father of contemporary CTE research.

Omalu, himself a public coroner by trade, was allowed to be present at the Seau autopsy, by the San Diego County medical examiner, to help ensure that the brain tissue was properly preserved. When the family made the donation for study, however, the winner was a sleeper: NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The terms are believed to preclude a specific public announcement of the findings, which are pending.

The upshot, it seems to me, is that Boston University’s Center for the Study of CTE, directed by Cantu and Chris Nowinski, has begun to outlive its usefulness for NFL public relations. Two-plus years after giving the Cantu-Nowinski group $1 million, the league clearly seeks a more formidable and malleable partner.

And to their credit, Cantu and Nowinski have become more outspoken about the magnitude of football’s public health danger and the most common-sense solution. As readers here know, I don’t think highly of their convoluted and impractical hit-count proposals for youth football. But lately Cantu also has started saying, with unforked tongue, that there should be no tackle football whatsoever under age 14. To which I say, better late than never. To the extent the first murmurings of this sentiment reduced Cantu’s favor in the NFL inner circle – even before the Seau donation scenario and the push of NIH to the front of the line – then good for him. I also don’t care if Cantu’s newer and stronger message (which I’m sure he will say, and will believe, is motivated only by the emergence of less ambiguous scientific data) coincides with the promotion of his new book.

It’s the message itself that’s important. That message is a can that the NFL, with $30 million and the imprimatur of NIH, is attempting to kick further down the road.

Do you wonder what Congressman Chaka Fattah, quarterback of Washington policymakers’ initiatives on neuroscience, thinks about all this? So do I. Fattah’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, Debra Anderson, still has not responded to Concussion Inc.’s multiple requests for comment.

 

Irv Muchnick

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