Reactions to the Frontline PBS documentary, 'League of Denial'

PBS Frontline on Tuesday night unveiled its League of Denial, a documentary that dissected the NFL’s concussion crisis -- check out our preview here -- and not surprisingly, it was damaging to the NFL.

Yet, it’s hard to predict whether this documentary will have any far-reaching consequences for the league, simply because you have to wonder if NFL fans will care enough to stop watching or to get their children to stop playing. But for 113 minutes on Tuesday, the NFL’s denial about the concussion problem for so many decades was fascinating to experience.

Most of the knowledge that emerged from the film has been documented in various media outlets throughout the last decade or so. But that it was all put together in this narrative was devastating for the league.

Here were some of my -- and other people’s -- musings as I watched:

-Before the documentary began, there was a tone of sarcasm in the air.

That’s George Atallah, spokesman for the player’s union -- which has gone head to head with the league lately on the issue of player safety. Curiously, though, the documentary doesn’t discuss the NFLPA and its role with concussions and didn’t feature anybody from the union.

Also, this:

-The documentary opened impressively by showing old footage of steel workers in Pittsburgh, and it reminded me that, like the NFL of old, those days are behind us.

For 23 minutes, League of Denial featured the story of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame Steelers center who died at the age of 50 after undergoing extensive brain damage. Webster perhaps is the poster boy -- or at least, the initial poster boy -- of what can happen to an NFL player who is exposed to numerous head injuries.

Dr. Bennet Omalu said this when he began performing Webster's autopsy.

“He looked beat up,” Omalu said. “He looked worn out. He looked drained. If I hadn’t been told his age, he looked 70.”

Omalu expected to see the brain of an Alzheimer’s disease patient, a shriveled, ugly-looking brain. But when he opened Webster’s skull, the brain looked normal.

It was only when Omalu began studying Webster's brain tissue under the microscope, staining for tau protein, that he discovered the symptoms of the disease he named CTE, 
chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

ESPN’s Steve Fainaru, the co-author of the book League of Denial, says that if Omalu didn’t open the brain and discover CTE, we wouldn’t be where we are right now in regard to head injury knowledge. This, according to League of Denial, was the first proof that playing football could cause permanent brain damage.

Later, the NFL’s doctors said Omalu didn’t understand the medical literature and urged him to retract his findings. Said Fainaru: “It’s an extraordinary move under any circumstances. You don’t try to get a paper retracted unless there was evidence of fraud or plagiarism.”

Said ESPN reporter Peter Keating: “The [NFL] went after him with missiles.”

And one of the biggest bombshells to emerge from the documentary was the story Omalu told when he met privately with an NFL doctor and when that doctor asked Omalu if he understood the implications of what he was doing.

“If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport,” that doctor told Omalu, “that is the end of football.”

-Watching those Webster highlights (and the highlights of him getting examined by team doctors) was haunting, especially since we know how it ended for him.  

One of the biggest gut-punches of the film came when Webster’s son recounted the story of a Steelers fan recognizing his father. “Are you Mike Webster?” the person asked.

Said Webster: “I used to be.”

-Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn’t come off well in the film, as the former lawyer orchestrated the league’s initial response. The documentary described how aggressive Tagliabue and the league were in defending itself. In fact, he blamed the concussion issue on pack journalism. And then he went out and hired a doctor in Elliot Pellman to head up the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee who didn’t believe concussions were a problem for the NFL and who had no background in brain research.

He also wasn’t a neurosurgeon.

“He’s not a neuro-anything,” Keating said. “He’s a rheumatologist.”

Even at that time, the film says, observers felt that hire was strange.

Amazingly, early research by the MTBI committee showed that a player who had suffered a concussion in a game could actually return to the field in that same game.

-As Will Carroll pointed out, it was chilling to watch Chris Nowinski -- a former Harvard football player and pro wrestler and the one who chases down the diseased brains of deceased NFL players -- take wrestling bumps from Eddie Guerrero, who died at the age of 38 in 2005.

-The film showed Nowinski and his team from Boston University crashing the Super Bowl in Tampa on Media Day in 2009. The press conference in which the CTE findings were discussed was not well attended.

That shocked Nowinski and other people who were there to disseminate the information for which they had already worked so hard.

Quick note: I attended one of those concussion press conferences put on by Nowinski in Indianapolis before the Super Bowl, and there were probably 15 of us reporters in there. On the positive, it wasn’t difficult to get Nowinski for a one-on-one interview afterward. I actually asked him if he thought a book on concussions and the NFL would sell. He basically said he didn't have high hopes.

I realize now that might not have been true.

-While watching the documentary, though, not everybody was convinced:

-Some of the doctors who were on the MTBI committee still don’t seem convinced of the problem in interviews they did for the documentary. They said they don’t know what role steroids and other drugs play and why thousands of NFL alumni are walking around with no problems.

-But here’s one of the major problems with this whole issue of player safety. Players in the past and I think many players in the present don’t think much about their future health.

Said Jim Otto, a Hall of Fame center for the Raiders from 1960-74:  “It’s affected my life. But I’m not out there crying about it. I know I went to war, and I came out of the battle with what I’ve got. That’s the way it is. That’s the way Mike Webster would say it too.”

-And has been the case and will continue to be the case, the NFL is in business in part to protect itself. The league did not speak to Frontline or to the authors of the book about this issue.

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