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NFL defends role in CTE study prior to 'Concussion' release

The controversy over the NIH study is bad optics for the NFL, which is reeling from a season overshadowed by injury and scandal.

On Christmas Day, moviegoers will finally get their first look at "Concussion", an already controversial film starring Will Smith, which dramatizes forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu's discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) in deceased NFL players and his efforts to expose his findings to a broader audience. The movie will be sandwiched between crucial late season football games on Dec. 24 and Dec. 26, and will also have to compete with a crowded slate of Hollywood's holiday offerings -- but a series of recent headlines might just make the film's relevancy too impossible to ignore.

This year's NFL season began in the wake of "Deflate-gate", the prolonging investigation into whether of not New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a hand in illegally tampering with footballs prior to January's AFC championship game. But once the season got going, injuries took center stage. Several key players were knocked out of competition for the season and the league's concussion protocol, which was updated in 2009 and again in 2013, was called into question on more than one occasion.

A series of violent plays initiated by New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. in a game against the unbeaten Carolina Panthers on Sunday -- including an intentional helmet to helmet hit -- has only exacerbated concerns about the violent nature of the sport. Just last month, the death of NFL legend and former broadcaster Frank Gifford was attributed in part to CTE as well as natural causes. And on Tuesday the NFL went into damage control again after ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported that the the league was ending its involvement in a multi-million dollar National Institutes of Health study into potential links between football and head trauma.

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The NFL refuted ESPN's report on Tuesday, with league spokesman Brian McCarthy tweeting: "ESPN story is not accurate. NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions."  Later on Tuesday, the NIH confirmed that the NFL's commitment to their Sports and Health Research Program (SHRP) "remains intact," adding that they made the decision to fully fund the study in its entirety.

The $16 million study was supposed to be a seven-year project funded by a $30 million grant made by the NFL in 2012. The goal of the study, which is being conducted at Boston University, was to try to develop a way to test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) in living patients. 

According to "Outside the Lines", the NFL withdrew their support after learning that Robert Stern, a Boston University professor of neurology and neurosurgery who has been highly critical of the league, would play a prominent role in the study. Stern had slammed the NFL's 2014 settlement with former players suffering from the aftereffects of head injuries and reportedly encouraged former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland s to retire prematurely over fears of sustained brain damage.

"I am a scientist, first and foremost," Stern told ESPN. "And as a scientist I have always and will always conduct research with complete impartiality. If I say things about the NFL or others that may sound negative, that has nothing to do with the impartiality of my science."

Whether ESPN's reporting is accurate or not, controversy over the NIH study is bad optics for the NFL, which is reeling from a season overshadowed by injury and scandal.

Even President Obama, a huge Chicago Bears fan, said if he had a son he wouldn't be comfortable with them playing football last year. And Dr. Omalu has argued that no young person should play pro football.

In a column penned earlier this month for The New York Times, Omalu wrote: "Over the past two decades it has become clear that repetitive blows to the head in high-impact contact sports like football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts and boxing place athletes at risk of permanent brain damage ... Why, then, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to this risk?"

"Concussion" will privately screen for free for NFL players in each team's home city courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment ahead of its national release. 

"This is a movie for the players, so we wanted to give them a chance to see it before its nationwide release and free admission during its run in theaters," producers Ridley Scott and Giannina Scott told ABC News in a statement on Wednesday,