On the eve of the 2013 Super Bowl, Harvard Medical School and the NFL Players Association announced one of the most ambitious sports research projects in history: a $100 million grant from the union to "improve the health and well-being of NFL players."
But the NFLPA never intended to give $100 million to Harvard, "Outside the Lines" has learned. The announcement was a public relations gambit by the union to pressure the NFL into putting up half of the money for a study that would address fundamental questions about player health, including the long-term impact of concussions.
The ploy backfired, touching off a behind-the-scenes power struggle between the NFL and the NFLPA over tens of millions of research dollars and leaving Harvard officials struggling to explain how an initiative that involves 10 schools, 16 medical centers, dozens of researchers and 1,000 retired NFL players will be funded.
"The landscape has changed slightly," NFLPA spokesman George Atallah told "Outside the Lines" in a recent interview.
NFLPA officials now say Harvard mischaracterized the initiative as a "grant," because any future money is predicated on performance and availability. And the project isn't necessarily worth $100 million, the officials concede. Harvard might receive far less because of the NFL's refusal to participate and because the union could pull out of the deal at any point -- although the NFLPA says it will continue to fund the project as long as the research is productive.
It's unclear whether Harvard was aware that the blockbuster announcement was part of a campaign to pressure the league.
Harvard officials said their initiative has "commenced" but offered no further details, including how much money, if any, researchers have received. In a six-paragraph "overview" provided to "Outside the Lines," the medical school no longer assigned a dollar figure to the project, noting that "ongoing funding requires Harvard to achieve clear benchmarks for each statement of work."
Harvard declined to make any researcher or administrator involved in the project available for an interview. A link to the NFLPA-funded project on the Harvard Medical School website appears to be broken or has been disabled.
The NFL declined to comment on the union's efforts to persuade the league to fund the Harvard study.
The battle between the NFL and the NFLPA over the research dollars -- initially designated in the collective bargaining agreement as a "joint contribution" to improve player health and safety -- reveals major philosophical differences in the way the two sides are using the league's vast resources to influence the emerging science of football-related brain injuries.
After its own research arm downplayed the significance of concussions for nearly two decades, and with concerns about the health effects of the sport growing, the NFL has donated at least $50 million to science over the past two years. Working with entities such as the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. military and private companies, the money is being used to help researchers better diagnose traumatic brain injury, develop imaging techniques to detect neurodegenerative disease in living patients and examine the effects of concussions in young athletes, among more than two dozen projects.