When I was 6 years old, my best friend and I played football at recess almost every single day, on a portion of our elementary school blacktop painted with a map of the world. He played quarterback. I was a wide receiver. Since it was the Bay Area during the Golden Age of the 49ers, I dreamed of being Jerry Rice, running a deep post, streaking from Russia all the way to Argentina, catching the ball, celebrating just like the 49ers did on my 5th birthday when they destroyed the San Diego Chargers. When I wasn’t playing soccer in middle school, I played flag football—but in high school the seasons conflicted, and I chose soccer. I often wonder what would’ve happened if, like my younger brother, I had chosen to try tackle football for the first time instead. My guess is that I’d be a lot more worried about how changes in my mood might be traced back to those years, or that I could potentially have permanent brain damage.
Football is a dead sport walking in the United States. It may look healthy, vibrant, and more profitable than ever. But in a few generations it will be a flimsy husk of itself at its height. The damning evidence is all here in “League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The Frontline report is “Concussions And The NFL 101,” outlining the league’s reaction to emerging medical research and observation, from commissioner Paul Tagliabue forming the first committee to research head trauma in the league to the recent $765 million settlement with the NFL Players Association. It doesn’t detail the mechanics of how football causes brain trauma, the way the brain moves inside the skull, or efforts by research universities to measure the force in hits and monitor players with special sensors. “League Of Denial” has the NFL squarely in its crosshairs, and the investigation covers what the league officials knew, when they knew it, and how they buried and discredited information that could potentially harm the sport.
It’s hard for me to keep it together on this topic, since a documentary like “League Of Denial” makes me so blindly furious at the NFL and its penchant for treating players like replaceable livestock. The NFL is infamous for ruthlessly cutting players off the roster at the precise moment when they become unable to perform on the highest level, but those are team and business decisions. Whether to investigate if the entire work force is at risk for life-changing severe brain damage is not something that can be easily ignored. There were two ways for the NFL to go about dealing with the emergence of this issue: Either get out ahead of it and conduct honest research, telling everyone what they knew along the way, and working in earnest to find a way to play the game safely or keep everyone aware of the dangers; or stall, lie, and deceive until enough evidence piled up to make the league look like a bunch of uncaring, foolish misers. Frontline makes it clear which path the league chose.
“League Of Denial” provides an excellent, mandatory two-hour overview of the rise in research on this subject. It goes back to Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his premature death and the autopsy performed by Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born medical examiner unacquainted with football. Webster had won a disability suit against the NFL previously, and in those documents (uncovered by the ESPN reporters interviewed throughout who wrote the book with the same title as the film), the league admitted to a link. That’s the first of only a few tiny tidbits of admission within “League Of Denial” regarding the connection between long-term health problems and the inherent dangers of football.
The most damning incident in the report comes at a summit convened in a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where the NFL’s medical committee interrupts and dismisses a presentation about the undeniable link between trauma caused by football and the frighteningly early onset of horrific mental problems. And when current league commissioner Roger Goodell appears before Congress, he embarrassingly stammers through non-answers, and then a representative brings up the obvious parallel between the NFL’s patent denials and the way the tobacco industry reacted when data began to emerge about smoking’s link to cancer. There are smoking guns all over the place, and the NFL refuses to give in to reason.
Critics of the research do have a tiny, salient set of rebuttals. It is a small sample size; there are a lot of players abusing steroids (which Americans don’t care about as much as they do when related to baseball); and it is certainly possible that other factors could contribute to the results. But to purport that players like Owen Thomas—who had tau protein deposits in his brain that look like that of an Alzheimer’s patient—is more likely the result of any of those potential factors instead of football-related injury is looking too hard for an excuse to write off the research as invalid. Yes, Boston University has only studied somewhere around 50 brains, but 49 of them have tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There is more research to be done on why these links exist, how soon, how much trauma can cause this permanent, festering damage.
But the league keeps trying to control the story, to “protect the shield.” In the highest-profile case of player suicide, the NFL intervened to prevent Dr. Omalu from examining Junior Seau’s brain, going through Seau’s son to tarnish Omalu’s reputation once again. The league didn’t want Omalu or Boston University’s Dr. Ann McKee continuing to throw fuel on the fire. It’s just petty at this point, no matter the amount donated to McKee’s research or the number of ignorant doctors replaced on the NFL’s committee. It’s too little too late for many NFL players who will suffer these problems, and for the children who participated in youth football because parents believed it when the league said football is safe.
My earliest association with football are those recesses spent imitating Young-to-Rice. I never considered the repercussions of all the relentless head trauma in football, or that the owners in major sports could be so cruel, so callous, and so uncaring toward the players that make it possible to have a team. Now I stand up at Northwestern games each fall and watch as a conflicted, nervous wreck. I draft my fantasy team and wonder which of them will have enough money to cover their medical costs. This issue could have been addressed years ago and acknowledged, but the greedy minds in the largest professional sports league in the country couldn’t let the well run dry. The NFL lost the chance to die a hero two decades ago, and now it must live to see itself delve further into villainy against its own labor force before the talent pool clamoring to play football disappears in the next few generations.
- As for ESPN, it comes out of this looking better than it did when the disillusion of the PBS partnership was announced. ESPN reporters wrote the book that sprouted the film, and the league looks like such a giant bully they slapped ESPN to fall in line, which any corporation would have done to appease the largest cash cow in the industry. So much as a I want to direct my ire at the Worldwide Leader, I must again reserve it exclusively for the NFL.
- What if players had their heads cocooned by a wire cage, something Juggernaut-shaped, that was attached to the shoulder pads but left the head free for movement? Would that affect anything at all? Would it only lead to more whiplash injuries and neck problems? Couldn’t players wear a neck roll? I’m honestly just spit balling here.
- Minimum NFL salary is $405,000 this year for a rookie, up to almost $1 million for a player with 10 years or more in the league. But consider that the average player is in the league for only three and a half seasons, meaning that a player probably takes home a bit over that million after taxes. That’s not too shabby for three and a half years of playing a professional sport, but it’s hardly the lap of luxury that pops up in the arguments against taking care of player health due to high salaries.
- Curiously, the documentary doesn’t talk much about the NFLPA or include anyone from the union in an interview. The settlement remains a baffling mystery, a grab for something now instead of fighting for the big moment of significant victory later.
- I don’t even want to think of how individual colleges and universities will deal with this health information as it becomes more widely accepted.