Almost everyone in the United States is aware of the NFL’s “concussion problem.” It has been hard to avoid the news surrounding the massive lawsuit brought by over 4,000 former NFL players and the subsequent settlement, or the tragic suicides of former heroes. Still, the details contained within the latest PBS Frontline special League of Denial are staggering.
Before it had even aired, League of Denial has garnered a lot of attention after ESPN publicly pulled their name and support from the documentary, despite two of their reporters doing much of the investigative reporting for the documentary. It was widely rumored they did so after pressure from the NFL due to their extremely negative portrayal throughout the film. While the scandal helped draw attention to the report, it is easily possible they did so of their own accord. It wouldn’t make much sense to sponsor a report this harsh about the dangers of permanent brain injury in a professional sport the channel broadcasts.
The majority of the public saw this news and responded with the same slight interest or blatant disregard that has frequently been the mantra of fans in support of the sport: “they knew what they were signing up for.” But, as the documentary shows, the players often had no idea what they were dealing with.
Take “Iron” Mike Webster, the prime example of permanent brain injury in the NFL. Webster spent nearly two decades as an iconic linebacker in the NFL, especially known for his years in the Pittsburgh Steelers. During his time in the Steelers during the 70’s, Webster was known for brutal hits and an intimidatingly physical approach to the game. Webster is a player who truly believed in sacrificing everything to the game. His son recounts that before his death, Webster was super gluing teeth in, duct taping painful cracks across his feet, and generally had destroyed his body.
But, Webster made sacrifices he didn’t see coming. When he died in 2002, at the age of 50, he had been divorced for six months, and was prone to bouts of violence, forgetfulness, and depression. He often found himself homeless, living in his truck. He couldn’t give interviews, because he couldn’t keep his thoughts straight. Perhaps most terrifying, he would ask to be tazed simply so he could sleep.
One point League of Denial pounds over and over across its two hour run-time is that these players knew from the start they were sacrificing their bodies. They knew they may come out the other side of battle crippled, in severe pain, and likely dying at a younger age. They saw themselves the same way the public saw them: gladiators. But, they didn’t know about the sacrifices you can’t see. Pain is tolerable to the men of the NFL, but if they knew they might not be themselves after, that they may lose their cognitive ability and in turn lose everything else they’ve ever loved, many NFL players would likely have made another choice.
Mike Webster isn’t just a prime example of a football player who actively welcomed the pain and brutality of football, he is also the first football player to ever be diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a permanent neurodegenerative disorder which is commonly associated with boxing and causes depression, cognitive impairment, behavioral issues, and other mental issues. The first of nearly 50 players who would be diagnosed before the release of the documentary.
But, while the documentary shows the personal toll and tragedy of these injuries to players and their families, the film really gets troublesome when it begins to explore how the NFL reacted to these findings. Webster’s autopsy discovery of CTE set off extensive research into concussions, traumatic brain injury, and CTE and their connection to football, and so far the findings have been bad. All but one brain of a former NFL player inspected for CTE have come up positive. Even with every confirmation bias taken into account by only having access to evaluate players already suspected of permanent cognitive deficiencies, the rate of CTE is NFL player autopsies is seemingly as bad as it could be.
So did the NFL suddenly start paying attention? If you only follow their side of the story, yes, they did. Long before Mike Webster died, the NFL established a committee to address brain trauma in the league all the way back in 1994. They’ve donated millions towards research, and they are set to start paying former players and their families a $765 million settlement. On the surface, it appears the NFL has been actively handling the problem.
As League of Denial shows though, under the surface things are very different. The first signs of trouble come when it is shown the NFL chose a rheumatologist to lead the committee, rather than a doctor educated in the field. Not only that, but Dr. Elliot Pellman made it very clear he did not support the notion that concussions or any other serious brain injury were a serious threat to the league, before he was elected.
From there, we are pulled into an ever deepening pit of denials and aggressive attempts to silence every scientist who dared to publish research telling of the dangers of brain injuries. Even the most devout NFL fan has to question their faith in the league as they hear respected doctors and scientists tell of how they were rudely interrupted and disregarded when they attempted to present their information to the league.
The most damning footage comes direct from representatives from the league. As one member of the league’s brain trauma committee attempts to explain how they addressed a team of doctors led by Dr. Ann McKee, he cannot look at the camera or even those interviewing him. When tasked to fight back accusations of not only disregarding scientific findings but also those of sexism towards McKee, Dr. Henry Feuer is all stutters and indirect glances.
Those same stutters and inability to look at those doing the questioning is present in the real crux of the film. As current NFL commissioner was called to testify to congress about brain injuries and safety in the league, he is unable to answer even the simplest questions, even about his own previous opinions. Then, as Goodell tries to misdirect blame and attention on the league, one representative gives one of the best comparisons in recent history. Rep. Linda Sanchez tells Goodell that the NFL reminds her of the tobacco industry.
The NFL is in a remarkably similar place to where the tobacco industry was in the 90’s. Smoking was long seen as an essential part of American culture, just as football is seen as a cornerstone of the modern USA. Yet, both products are harmful to anyone who comes in contact. Simply telling the truth would be bad for business, but at first the evidence wasn’t conclusive. Tragically for both industries, they tried to stand their ground and deny the evidence until it has become impossible to do so.
Following the settlement with over 4,000 former NFL players, numerous coaches have also come forward asking for compensation for injuries they have received. Most players are coming forward every day, and new research is constantly being published showing that concussions are not to be taken lightly. However, to this day the NFL still denies any significant link between permanent brain injuries and the NFL.
League of Denial makes it very obvious football is already past its tipping point. It won’t be going away soon, but there are only a few viable options for the league moving forward. They can continue to deny the scientific evidence in front of their eyes, and hope the NFL is so ingrained in America that we will all willingly look the other way. They could also begin taking the findings seriously and implement strong rules which would take away the brutality of the sport so many tune in for. For the time being, it looks like they are happy to keep denying and making cosmetic changes more aimed at appeasing the critics than protecting their players.