Coming to a bookstore and TV near you today is “League of Denial” a book and documentary about one of the dirty little secrets the NFL has been avoiding for some time. Fortunately, I have been provided with advance copies of both; the Frontline film was easy to digest, as for reading a book, well we can just say I am trying to read as fast as possible.
I was reminded quickly, yesterday via Twitter, that I may lack valuable perspective when it comes to concussion information (and that I am not normal – this is not breaking news). Will Carroll of Bleacher Report let me know that this information will be new to a lot of people out there. He is exactly right, not only that, this documentary will be easily digestible for the fan of football. For any person just wading into this, when you tune into PBS tonight to view “League of Denial” you will be absolutely hooked from the start.
The sounds of the crowd, visuals of big hits grab your football part of the brain IMMEDIATELY, over those sounds you will quickly discover the problem NFL players have faced with brain injuries playing their sport. Harry Carson saying “and then they are gone” when talking about former players. A bold statement that the level of denial was “just profound.” An NFL lawyer saying “we strongly deny those allegations that we withheld information or misled the players.” And more video and sound of punishing hits that used to fill the highlight reel bring the opening curtain of this very important documentary.
This problem is real – it’s not just real for the professionals – and from the get go Frontline makes you understand, vividly and personally, why this is. After listening to old radio calls of the Steel Curtain it all begins with the story of Mike Webster and the forensic pathologist who studied his brain, Bennet Omalu.
The discovery of a possible reason one of the most respected and lauded players in Pittsburgh sports pantheon fell from grace and eventually found and early demise. If the football portion of your brain does not connect to what is being presented then I would haphazardly guess that you are not ingrained within the fabric of football.
As Harry Carson explains how the game was played and to some extent how it’s still played you can begin to understand the issue at hand. This is hammered home when Robert Stern, PhD tells the audience blows to the brain are at forces 20 times greater than the force of gravity (20 G’s); or as he so eloquently put it “driving into a brick wall at 35mph”, 1,000 times or more in a season.
In the first 11 minutes of this 2 hour presentation you are at full attention and want to understand the “whats”, “whys” and “whos”. If you are not engaged and ready for further explanation I can only say that you don’t care or want to bury your head in the sand.
Contributions in the film include many prominent doctors (Robert Cantu, Bennet Omalu and Julian Bailes among the many) as well as poignant commentary from some of football’s greats (Harry Carson and Steve Young to highlight). Even those that make it their job to get players the money they deserve, the agents (in this documentary, one Leigh Steinberg) recounts the Troy Aikman concussion that shook both of their worlds. As you hear Steinberg tell the story, how can you not find it disturbing that this mountain of a man and Hall of Famer could not remember the game or a conversation that was had 10 minutes prior. The theme among all of the above is that this cannot be good, yet no one was openly discussing this in the manner it deserved; specifically from the place people thought it should have been, the league.
As in the companion book by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada the documentary takes a look at how the NFL had a grasp on information or research and it was controlled; even looking at how the so-called “peer-reviewed” science was distributed in medical journals. The documentary goes as far as to describe how Omalu was basically ostracized by some in the medical community for his finding about the cumulative effects of brain trauma in professional football players – orchestrated by the NFL and its scientific arm.
As evidence mounts of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, found by Omalu and further researched by Ann McKee and the Sports Legacy Institute headed by Chris Nowinski, questions come to bear about how much is too much, and can we find a way to subvert these issues we are starting to see in full Technicolor. Still with all the information there are plenty of people who want to cast a shadow of doubt on all the work done, which is OK, but to hide or not disclose information in the pursuit of saving a game is not the right path.
As the film comes to the end the timeline is evident, those that may have had a hand in covering up this issue well documented and the points within hammered home by recent events; Junior Seau and the concussion litigation settlement.
As I stated above, it is perfectly acceptable to challenge information but in a civil and open manner. Certainly, we should not make rash and ill-conceived conclusions nor policies based on little information. What we need to have is transparency and discover what we all can do to help with this problem. As the film showed this is not a professional one, there are outliers, so we all are stakeholders.
Regardless of what your preconceived notion is about this issue, this documentary presents issues we will ALL face at some point when dealing with sports and life. Yes, this film is about the NFL and its professional employees; to which few of us will come in contact with, personally. However, we all watch and connect with the largest sport in America – many of our kids, grand kids, nephews/nieces, friends and acquaintances play the sport. What is presented in a very neat and understandable manner needs to be watched and understood to its fullest.
The reason is simple, if we would like to continue to enjoy our love affair with this sport and others grasping the information and making sound and corrective – proactive – policies will allow for this torrid relationship to continue.