‘Frontline: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis’

“That Tom could have had the injury that he had to his brain, of course this is information that I would have liked to have had.”

— Lisa McHale, wife of offensive guard Tom McHale, dead at age 45

“The human body was not created or built to play football,” says Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson. “When you have force against force, you’re going to have injuries, and I’m not talking about the knees and all of that stuff, it’s a given. But from a neurological standpoint, you’re gonna have some brain trauma.”

No one in League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis says it plainer than this, no one makes the case more simply or more convincingly. After some 12 years playing for the New York Giants and now 25 years retired, Carson has a hard won perspective, a view of the game and especially, the National Football League. That’s not to say that Carson doesn’t love the game. It is to say he understands it in ways most football fans do not. He knows the many risks and the rewards, he appreciates the experience and remains loyal to the many friends he’s made over so many decades. But Harry Carson is also willing to acknowledge that the game is also a business, and that for the NFL, that business is huge.

It’s so huge that the NFL has been able to muscle ESPN out of participating in this project, League of Denial, on which the network had been collaborating with Frontline. Premiering on PBS and online 8 October, this superb, daunting documentary is part of a larger project, including an extensive web archive, a site tracking NFL head injuries throughout the 2013 season, Concussion Watch, and a book by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, both featured in the documentary, along with the New York Times‘ Allan Schwarz and ESPN’s Peter Keating. The extent of all of the reporting, the complications of the relationships (between industry and individuals, news and entertainment, players and — for lack of a better term — owners), and the lives at stake all make League of Denial compelling, even compulsory viewing.

It’s hardly surprising that the NFL can pressure ESPN to withdraw from League of Denial: in fact, it only reinforces this report’s argument, that the NFL, a many-pronged, multi-billion dollar enterprise, has been manipulating and manufacturing truths for decades, buying expert “opinions” and public support, and buying time as well. The show lays out a chronology of questions and denials concerning the relationship between head injuries and effects, beginning with the story of Mike Webster, lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 17 years and ending with a note on the recent $765 million settlement between the NFL and some 4200 former players, a settlement that legally allows the league to not acknowledge a connection between football and, among other effects, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease that afflicted Iron Mike Webster.

In between these two points — when the league (apparently) first deployed denial as a defense and when it laid down a trench of denial — the NFL has made billions of dollars for very few people. To that end, it refuses to acknowledge Webster’s story, a story that is very like those of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau, men who loved their game and suffered for it. That story goes like this: on his retirement in 1990, Webster changed, he lost his memory and ability to function, his marriage and sense of self. That this story is so familiar is both chilling and infuriating, effects only underscored by the league’s not entirely consistent refusal to be responsible for the men and boys on whom it depends for its existence and profits.

In 2002, following Webster’s death at age 50, a medical examiner and neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu discovered in his brain signs of particular damage, like but not the same as that found in Alzheimer’s patients. Bennet published his findings in the prestigious journal Neurosurgery, and the league went after him, calling his work inept and unethical. To fight back, he joined with Fitzsimmons and longtime Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes, expanding the study and aligning themselves with Chris Nowinski, who also appears in Steve James’ Head Games, among other efforts to get the word out about sports concussions. Their organization, the Sports Legacy Institute works with families of former football players in search of answers — or even just the most effective questions to ask — regarding their experiences with head injuries and, too often, the NFL.

The NFL has worked hard to remain elusive as to these questions and answers. The recent revelation that the league acknowledged in writing 12 years ago that Webster’s disability resulted from his work for it would appear, as his lawyer Bob Fitzsimmons says here, to be a “proverbial smoking gun.” But the NFL doesn’t function within the same ethical and political parameters as most of its fans and employees. That it does not is precisely the argument made by League of Denial. The NFL — in the forms of Paul Tagliabue at first and now, Roger GoodeLl, with their investigatory committees staffed with team doctors — repeatedly pushes back against scientific findings that match or expand Omalu’s saying that more research must be done, more investigation of drug use, genetics or other possible factors. This may be so, the show allows, but the most obvious similarity among the men (and boys) whose brains reveal these patterns is their history of head trauma.

The efforts to delay and to deny are alarming even to those individuals who appreciate and even love the game — and these include Nowinski, Carson, former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, sports agent Leigh Steinberg, and brain trauma expert Dr. Ann McKee — the trouble is primarily the NFL’s refusal to acknowledge causes and effects and, more worrisome, its aggressive tactics in discrediting anyone who says otherwise.

Omalu’s experience serves as a primary example of such tactics. Now working as a medical examiner in “dustbowl California,” he laments his involvement with the NFL. “I wish I never met Mike Webster,” Omalu says here, “CTE dragged me into the politics of science.” This politics is compounded by money, and the NFL has lots of that. No matter the million dollars the league donated to the Boston’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where McKee works, or the $30 million it pledged to NIH’s brain injury research, the official results remain the same, that is, the league insists that not enough is known and more work must be done. In the meantime, the Superbowl and Monday Night Football and the NCAA reap billions of dollars.

It’s this last bit that League of Denial means to open up, especially, the NFL’s effects as a merchandising machine on college, high school, and even younger players. If only ten percent of mothers might be convinced that their sons should not play football, suggests one NFL representative to Omalu, “That is the end of football.” It sounds dire, and perhaps that is the end, eventually, but for now, League of Denial suggests a shorter term goal, one that might reshape the game, but will certainly change the NFL, its self-representation, its commitment to its players.

For even if, as the show reports, the effects of hard, obvious concussions might be determined, the much greater pool of possible victims are those players who suffer mild injuries, sub-concussive impacts, that can number, as Robert Cantu reminds you here, as many as 1,000-1,500 times a year if you’re an average safety or a tackle. These hits won’t take you out of a game, they might not seem to affect you that day, that year, or even during your career as a player, amateur or professional. But this is why these hits are most frightening.

Steve Young, whose career was ended by concussions, says now, “I really worry about my lineman brothers, I really worry for my running back brothers. I mean, that’s the truth. Talk about a nefarious injury that you never feel until it’s too late. I look back over 30 years associated with football, that’s the thing that’s most alarming to me.”

League of Denial emphasizes the multiple ways in which this injury is indeed “nefarious.” First, if you’re a parent or a player, you might think twice about the physical, medical part, as Young notes here, the part you can’t gauge until debilitating or even minor effects become manifest a decade after you’ve stopped playing, whether it’s at age 18 or age 40.

The other part, though, that’s what can be seen for what it is right now, and that part is the NFL, selling its many pleasures, its power and allure. These pleasures include the game as such but also its representation, exemplified in the work of NFL Films, but available in multiple images and ideas of the NFL. It’s a tension, says Michael Oriard, onetime lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, now an English professor and Associate Dean at Oregon State University, between the violence and the beauty, the sense of football as something powerful and elemental and mythic and epic.”

Football, in slow motion, with a monumental soundtrack, can be all of those things. For now, the NFL is not any of them.

RATING 9 / 10