By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Monday was not a banner day at 345 Park Avenue.

While high-profile attorney Ted Olson was making legal mincemeat out of commissioner Roger Goodell, ESPN’s Outside The Lines released a damning report that detailed just how far the NFL went to try to interfere with and influence a major study into concussions.

OTL had previously reported on the NFL pulling funding from the National Institutes of Health study, a story which NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy disputed immediately.

But now, OTL came equipped with a 91-page report from congressional investigators which detailed the depths to which the NFL traveled to try to control how the study was conducted. McCarthy has yet to tweet in protest.

Essentially, the NFL had agreed to give $16 million to the NIH for the study, but then tried to get Dr. Robert Stern removed from leading the research, because Stern had been critical of the league in the past. When the NIH denied the NFL’s request, the NFL pulled its funding.

When informed that the $16 million price tag would then be put onto taxpayers, the NFL offered a face-saving, “last-minute” $2 million payment after it was suggested to the league that “a partial contribution would ‘help dampen criticism.'”

“It shouldn’t be a rigged game,” New Jersey congressman Frank Pallone Jr. told OTL. “If it is, then people won’t really know whether what we’re finding through this research is accurate.”

Pallone also said: “They wanted to look like the good guy, like they were giving money for this research,” said Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “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.”

The report spotlights Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, who initially applied as part of a group to lead the $16 million research project and then later became an advocate for the NFL to have Dr. Stern removed from the project. Ellenbogen previously denied having any knowledge or opinion of Dr. Stern to OTL, but the new report showed that he was part of a three-person team for the NFL tasked with removing Dr. Stern.

It’s big news, and Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada deserve plaudits for doggedly chasing the story for many months. It also comes on the heels of the NFL admitting that more than $700,000 of taxpayer money went toward on-field military celebrations, thus making it a troubling time to be working public relations for the NFL. It likewise doesn’t help the effort when a superstar like Aaron Rodgers retweets the OTL report on Monday.

But it’s not entirely surprising. Given what we know about how the NFL has handled — or mishandled — brain trauma over the years, it’s never shocking to see what goes on behind the curtains.

Nevertheless, it’s representative of an issue in the sport of football that has a much higher importance level than deflated footballs, yet it’s unlikely to receive the same level of attention.

As for the NFL’s response, it’ll be interesting to see if still-new PR chief Joe Lockhart fights the Congressional report with as much vigor as he did when he fought The New York Times’ concussion/Big Tobacco story back in March. Then, when he accused the reporters of ignoring facts and sensationalizing the story while the NFL prepared a formal request for the Times to retract the story, Lockhart had the advantage of being able to fight “the media.” Fighting the government often proves to be much more difficult.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments