It was billed as the documentary that Roger Goodell and the NFL didn't want you to see.
PBS' Frontline aired its long-awaited special—League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis—on Tuesday night to a bevy of support (and buzz) from the football community. In terms of media attention, only ESPN's 30 for 30 draws this kind of anticipation and reaction as a documentary series.
For those that were not able to watch it live or forgot to set the DVR, the near two-hour special is available on Frontline's website.
As you may remember, this is the documentary that ESPN first assisted with and then pulled out of—possibly because of pressure from the NFL. On their end, the network claimed that a lack of editorial control led to the departure.
Worth noting, however, is that for better or for worse, ESPN public relations and several ESPN talents continued to give the documentary—and their contributing journalists, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada—support via Twitter.
Regardless of how much influence ESPN had (or didn't have) with the documentary, PBS and the ESPN journalists involved did a fantastic job of weaving together the timeline of the NFL's categorical denial of football's long-term effects on the brain.
At times, it was chilling.
The program began with the tale of former Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster. Webster died just over a decade ago, and the details of his life after football are as depressing they are frightening—details like super gluing his own teeth back into his head, duct taping his feet to close the open sores, being shocked by a stun gun just to fall asleep.
Webster was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy by Dr. Benet Omalu—a Pittsburgh-area neuropathologist and someone who had never heard of the former NFL star. One look at Webster's warped and aged body, and Omalu knew that he would find something wrong inside his head, even if his brain looked normal on the surface. Omalu demanded to have the brain preserved for testing and eventually found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
It's probably going too far to call the NFL the antagonist of the documentary—although some of the league's doctors and commissioners certainly come out painted in a poor light. In looking for a protagonist, however, Omalu would be a fantastic pick. He begins to understand the importance of his work as he looks at the brain of another former Steeler, Terry Long, and after Steelers neuroconsultant Joe Maroon attempts to push him off the trail.
Omalu comes up again at the end of the documentary when he is permitted by the family of San Diego Chargers legend Junior Seau to examine his brain post-suicide. The NFL intervened, slandering Omalu's name to Seau's son and was able to keep Omalu from doing his job. Like Webster, Omalu had no idea who Seau was or the paradigm shift that finding CTE in his brain would cause. Eventually, the National Institutes of Health would find what Omalu knew all along.
Omalu isn't the only scientist standing up to the NFL; Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University provide another foil to the NFL's consistent denial of the game's long-term dangers. McKee has examined the brains of 46 NFL players, 45 of whom had evidence of CTE. She's been accused by NFL doctors and lawyers of overstating her case.
It was a McKee quote that led the NFL to wince at the documentary. In discussing CTE, she says, “I'm really wondering if every single football player doesn't have this." Note that she says "football player" and not "NFL player," a reality that should scare parents as much as it does the league.
McKee and Cantu are big proponents of no tackle football until high school—work that the NFL has echoed with its support of youth flag football initiatives.
The big question that many want to ask following this program: What does it matter?
Active NFL players were silent on social media last night, but some had to be watching. Will any of them wake up the next morning and leave the game?
Does that tacit approval of the NFL's violence absolve the league from any wrongdoing?
The question is not whether the NFL is a dangerous game. Players know that. We all know that.
The question has to be: Did the NFL know more about the game's long-term dangers before players knew, and did the league purposefully obscure those details for its own monetary gain, to the detriment of the players?
The answer to that question is almost certainly yes.
In their paperwork for Webster's disability, the league admitted—albeit privately—that playing the game had long-term effects on the brain. It took years for the NFL to do so publicly, when spokesman Greg Aiello admitted the same to New York Times columnist Alan Schwarz in 2009.
Many say: "Of course players know the risk. They'd be foolish not to know. It's common sense."
Yet, in talks with men like Cantu, who tell me that they don't know all the long-term risks, or guys like USA Football Medical Advisory board member Dr. David Yukelson, who tells me that there isn't enough data to know all the risks, it becomes clear that the players don't know nearly as much as they should.
Of course, the league (as recently as 2007) told players that there wasn't any evidence that football had long-term effects on the brain and that concussions don't have long-term consequences. Yes, they qualified with plenty of modifiers, but the pamphlet's message is clear: Don't worry.
Would knowing change the game? No, not right away. The game's inherent dangers may be getting worse and more apparent as we hurdle toward a possible "CTE generation" of former players, but the game is still at the very height of its popularity and doesn't seem to be going anywhere, at least anytime soon.
But the knowledge of League of Denial could force parents to think twice before steering their children onto a football field. It could cause older players to think long and hard before coming back for another year of hits. Most importantly, it should spur more research into ways to make the game safer.
Safe? No, that's not the goal. Football is a dangerous sport, and that's one of the things we love about it. Just because these players are modern-day gladiators, though, doesn't mean we should yearn to see them die on the battlefield or from the effects of their warfare like the gladiators of old.
Whether it's rule changes, technology changes or simply better education, the game can be safer today than it was yesterday, and safer tomorrow than it was today.
One thing is for sure: Following the concussion lawsuit settlement and the very public airing of its dirty laundry on League of Denial, there is no more room for backroom deals and two-bit medical politics.
The NFL is being forced to admit the mistakes of its past, and that is a big step in the right direction.
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