By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
Rarely in history, if ever, has there been as big of a contradiction as the National Football League. The NFL is, at once, far and away the most popular sports league in the country, and constantly under fire. This phenomenon was captured perfectly in PBS Frontline’s riveting and disturbing documentary League of Denial, which aired Tuesday night after fifteen months of research and weeks of anticipation. The documentary has gotten a lot of attention, particularly in the last month. This is primarily due to an entity not officially affiliated with the project: The World Wide Leader in Sports, ESPN.
Originally, the documentary was a star-studded collaboration between the prestigious Frontline team and two of ESPN’s top investigative reporters. Brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada are both highly respected and accomplished journalists (and regulars in Saying Something’s monthly “Best of Sports” series!) – Steve won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his work during the Iraq War, while Mark is known for breaking the Barry Bonds/BALCO scandal. (In addition, they wrote a book that is also titled League of Denial. We might come back to this. Stay tuned.) However, two months before the documentary aired ESPN mysteriously and – some would say, suspiciously — pulled their name from the project.
Many speculated that it was because the documentary was highly critical of the NFL and the company didn’t want to anger their lucrative business partner. Never mind the implications of compromising journalism ethics; ESPN couldn’t afford to bite the hand that feeds, they asserted. ESPN, of course, vehemently denied anything of the sort. ESPN President John Skipper made the decision after seeing the trailer and feeling that it was “sensational.” The highly publicized split was a PR mess for ESPN, but, for PBS, it gave the project an unexpected boost. Suddenly, a group of people that probably wouldn’t have thought to tune into PBS were not only aware of the program, they were actively waiting for it. If League of Denial succeeded in scaring ESPN away from the project when it was that close to its end, then it must be fairly controversial and, more significantly, very damning to the network’s golden goose.
So, just how damning is it? Well, it’s pretty devastating. However, that is not to say that it was all that surprising or groundbreaking. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past five years, then you are probably aware that the NFL and the sport of football itself has been under fire for the dangers of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). You might even know that the NFL has been resistant to confirm claims that there is a direct link between football and life debilitating diseases like CTE. What you might not know is the great lengths that the league went to avoid dealing with the concussion crisis. League of Denial is about shedding light on the truth that the league has worked so hard to keep covered, and exposing the lengths that the NFL went to in the process. And the truth is painful.
It begins by talking about hardnosed Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. During the seventies and the eighties, Webster was a force for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team widely regarded as one of the toughest in football. Webster retired in 1990 with nine Pro Bowl selections and four Super Bowl championships. It was a glorious career that was followed by non-stop Hell that lasted until he died in 2002 at the age of 50. In his post-playing life, Webster was tormented by depression and dementia. His struggles tore his family apart and left him homeless. After his death, neuropathologist Bennet Omalu examined his brain and diagnosed him with CTE. Webster was the first football player to ever be diagnosed with the brain disease.
By this point, the NFL was well aware that concussions were a problem. Then-commissioner of the league Paul Tagliabue created The Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee way back in 1994. Notable players like Steve Young and Troy Aikman had suffered career-ending concussions. The media and the general public knew of the issue, too, but Tagliabue dismissed their concerns and said that their claims were a product of “pack journalism.” Dr. Omalu continued conducting research on the effects of the big hits that the NFL and its partners routinely glorified in slick highlight packages. He published his research and found that the NFL was not only denying his claims, but also actively attempting to discredit him as a neuropathologist. Omalu, who is not a football fan, did not understand the implications of his findings. However, another doctor memorably put it into perspective for him “”Bennett, do you know the implications of what you’re doing? If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football,” he said.
That is only the beginning of it. The documentary then sprawls to the work of other neuropathologists such as Ann McKee of Boston University. McKee has become the leading authority on brain injuries, particularly in football. Like Omalu before her, her findings have been contemptuously disputed by the NFL. She is responsible for one of the quotes that got under the skin of ESPN’s John Skipper. “I’m really wondering where this stops,” she told the Fainarus. “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.” Some have asserted that McKee doesn’t have a big enough sample size to say things like that. But the fact that she has diagnosed CTE in the brains of 45 out of the 46 football players that she has examined is pretty alarming. That she found it in an eighteen-year old high school player is even more damning. The program is also packed with heartbreaking anecdotes from friends, widows, sons and daughters of NFL players that suffered greatly before dying too young – and, tragically, sometimes by their own hand.
The end focuses on the recent lawsuit between 4,500 former players and the NFL over concussions and other health issues that were the result of playing football in the league. However, a large chunk of the plaintiffs were going to be cut out of the deal because it couldn’t be determined that their injuries were caused by playing in the NFL, as opposed to occurring in college or high school. As a result, the NFL settled with the former players for $765 million. It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the bucket for an industry that netted $9.5 billion in revenue last year. Although many saw it as an insult to the struggling and decrepit ex-players, some took it as a moral victory, and a sign that the truth was finally being exposed. “The human body was not created or built to play football,” former Giants linebacker Harry Carson said, “I think the NFL has given everybody 765 million reasons why you don’t want to play football.”
That quote might be a little bit on the “over the top” side, but Carson definitely has a point. If research continues to suggest that playing football is likely to cause brain damage, then less and less parents are going to let their kids play the game. The NFL and football in general looks invincible right now, but the truth is that it’s a lot more vulnerable than most people realize. The league and the general public, for that matter, can’t keep denying forever. So, if you’re a football fan and you aren’t troubled by the ethical implications and the inescapable consequences of each Sunday’s biggest hits, then I would suggest you fully soak in and appreciate the privilege of watching the NFL while you can. League of Denial suggests it isn’t going to be around forever.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.