US lawmakers have reported that the National Football League attempted to improperly influence a major study into links between the sport and brain disease.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce ruled in a 91-page report that the NFL and several of the organization's top health officials had waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to try and affect the outcome of the research study.
‘While the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of a trial on head injury, it was privately attempting to influence that research.’
The claims first came to light in a story by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" program.
The Congressional report sided with the ESPN show's findings, describing how the NFL had pressured the National Institutes of Health to take the $16 million project away from a prominent Boston University researcher.
The NFL had sought to redirect the money to members of the league's own committee on brain injuries, according to ESPN.
The funding for the study came from a $30 million "unrestricted gift" the NFL gave the NIH in 2012.
"In this instance, our investigation has shown that while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research," the report states.
The NFL later backed out of a signed agreement to pay for the study after the NIH rejected its calls to replace lead researcher Robert Stern, an expert in neurodegenerative disease who has criticized the league. Taxpayers instead carried the cost.
"Once you get anybody who's heavily involved with the NFL trying to influence what kind of research takes place, you break that chain that guarantees the integrity, and that's what I think is so crucial here," Democratic lawmaker Frank Pallone told ESPN.
"They wanted to look like the good guy, like they were giving money for this research. But as soon as they found out that it might be somebody who they don't like who's doing the research, they were reneging on their commitment, essentially."
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league would review the findings of the Congressional report but added: "We ... categorically reject any suggestion of improper influence."
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) said the findings of the Congressional report proved the NFL did not have the best interests of players at heart.
"This is why the NFLPA refused to be a part of any study with the NFL," NFLPA chief Eric Winston said.
"They cannot be trusted to do the right thing when it involves players," the former Cincinnati Bengals tackle added.
In April last year, the NFL agreed to settle a lawsuit and pay $765 million to about 5,000 former players over health claims linked to concussion and head injury.
But the issue continues to dog the league, and its top health executive made headlines in March when he became the first senior league official to acknowledge a link between football-related head trauma and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
It followed years of the NFL downplaying the possibility of such a connection, even as the league moved to allay fears by concussion protocols and rule changes designed to reduce the number of head injuries players endure.