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Frontline PBS doc 'League of Denial' examines NFL concussion problem

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

The moment I knew PBS Frontline's League of Denial -- a documentary on the NFL's concussion crisis airing Tuesday night -- was a big deal? When my mother sent along an article about the accompanying LOD book noting that it "raises a lot of tough questions for the NFL and the sport of football in general." That's precisely what PBS' documentary does and it's worth your time or, at the very least, DVR space.

The beginning of the film focuses specifically on Mike Webster, former Steelers offensive lineman, and the struggles he dealt with after football.

Webster's brain is credited as one of the first to show that the damage football could cause; when Webster died at age 50, Dr. Bennett Omalu decided to preserve his brain.

"If I had not been told his age I would have thought he was 70," Dr. Omalu said of the 50-year-old Webster.

Things quickly shift toward Frontline's straight-up accusation that the NFL knew the danger of concussions all along and did its best to cover up any concerns over the issue. There aren't many punches pulled in the documentary, with Frontline claiming the Paul Tagliabue regime appointed doctors who consistently denied the link between mental health issues and the NFL, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Dr. Omalu, known as the "brain seeker" in some circles, found what is now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy

Frontline claims the NFL did its best to impair Dr. Omalu's reputation after he attempted to bring the issue of (CTE) to the forefront. Dr. Omalu, speaking in the film, claims he met in secret with an NFL doctor and was basically told to stop pursuing the issue of brain damage in football players.

"Bennett, do you know the implications of what you're doing?" the NFL doctor reportedly asked Dr. Omalu. "If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football."

League of Denial even questions the NFL's impressive actions to play catch up in recent years. In 2009 the NFL donated $1 million to Boston University for CTE study. Members of Boston University's medical staff say that when the league announced the donation, it was the first they'd heard of it.

The Frontline documentary picked up publicity steam in August when the New York Times reported that ESPN backed out of the League of Denial project after being pressured by the NFL to do so. The NFL vehemently denied it pressured the network whatsoever.

But it's not a great look for the league that it declined to speak with PBS for the project. The film does a strong and convincing job of piecing together commentary from scientists along with historical footage to paint a picture of a league that wasn't concerned with the long-term effects of CTE for many years.

Obviously this is only one side of things. The NFL is doing much, much more these days to combat the long-term health issues caused by playing the game and is making player safety a priority.

Whether or not you believe the league does so genuinely is a different matter. There are still sociological issues to debate, such as whether the league is required to be the caretaker of everyone's long-term physical health and whether or not professional football players fully understand the risk of playing football.

It's a fascinating topic and one PBS does a strong job of examining.

PBS encourages viewers of the documentary to engage in the discussion on Twitter by using the hashtags #PBSFrontline and #LeagueOfDenial or by tweeting at @FrontlinePBS. We'll be tweeting along with the doc with our @eyeonnfl account, so be sure to follow along.

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