We’ve Seen Frontline’s Highly Anticipated Concussion Documentary, And It Is Very Bad For The NFL

A startling investigative report chronicles a culture of dismissiveness and ignorance toward brain trauma that’s pervaded the highest ranks of the NFL for years.

Al Messerschmidt / Getty

As you watch League of Denial, the two-hour Frontline investigation premiering tomorrow night on PBS — as you watch its subjects, the men running the NFL, evolve from private ignorance to public dishonesty on the issue of concussions — you may at some point realize that a story about brain trauma has left you involuntarily shaking your own head. Eighteen months in the making, League of Denial is a triumph of investigative journalism into one of the most pressing public health crises of our time.

It was only six weeks ago that ESPN, which had been a high-profile collaborator on League of Denial for the better part of a year, severed all ties with Frontline, citing a lack of editorial control. (The New York Times, among others, reported that NFL pressure may have been involved in abrupt decision.) ESPN had to consider how comfortable it was potentially antagonizing a major business partner, but PBS and Frontline had no such worries, and so League of Denial stands not only as a testament to their award-winning reporting chops but a badge of bravery, public television holding its own with a $10 billion sporting behemoth like the NFL.

League of Denial follows a fairly straight trajectory from its opening segment, which covers the violent career and sad decline of former Steelers center Mike Webster. Webster’s 2002 death and subsequent autopsy led eventually to the recent $765 million settlement between the league and several thousand former players over the detrimental neurological effects of playing the sport. These points, 11 years apart, bookend a brisk but methodical narrative in which the NFL shifts from blithe insouciance to aggression. Along the way, players’ lives spiral downward and medical professionals’ reputations are needlessly tarnished, all while the largest and most successful American sports grows larger and more successful.

Powerful anecdotes put the consequences of brain trauma in human terms. One of the most chilling is told by super-agent Leigh Steinberg, who describes meeting his client, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, in a Dallas-area hospital after the 1994 NFC Championship. Aikman had been knocked from the game with a knee to the head, and Steinberg informed him in the dark — the lights in the hospital were too bright for Aikman’s concussed brain — that he had been concussed but that his team had won the game and that he was heading to his second straight Super Bowl. Five minutes later, Aikman asked him why he was in the hospital and what had happened in the game, and then asked the same thing again five minutes after that, his frontal cortex little more than a skipping vinyl record.

There are two hypotheticals that hang over League of Denial. One is what an intact PBS–ESPN partnership would look like going forward. Though ESPN boasts a prestigious and well-regarded investigative reporting team, mostly in its Outside the Lines crew, it’s hard to see what more an intact partnership would’ve provided here, given how comprehensive Frontline’s work seems to be, beyond having another platform with which to promote the film. Alas, with ESPN’s global sway, that would’ve been no small boost.

As it stands, authors and ESPN investigate reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada remain principal characters in the film, having worked closely on the production and authored the book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, which also comes out tomorrow. To its credit, ESPN has been allowing the Fainarus to do a good bit of book promotion, both on the network and in rival publications. (ESPN senior writer Peter Keating is another revelation in the film, mixing intelligence with good-natured gravitas.) But while the number of people that will ultimately see League of Denial will be exponentially smaller without the backing of ESPN’s powerful promotional machine, the content of the film itself could not have possibly more cutting, persuasive, or enthralling than the final cut.

The other nagging unanswerable is what this film would’ve looked like had the NFL actually cooperated with its production in some way. As it stands, League of Denial depicts Paul Tagliabue’s (and then Roger Goodell’s) NFL as a business entity that will do anything within its means to save the brand from public relations harm, bullying scientists and flat-out denying factual data in a way that would make D.C. politicians envious. The physician who first examined Mike Webster’s brain has been systemically impugned and questioned over the years in despicable fashion; the film also explores the rise of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy — CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) being the primary brain disease that afflicts football players. (It’s particularly monstrous in that it can only be diagnosed by slicing into and examining a dead person’s brain.) Today, the BU center is the NFL’s preferred “brain bank” for studying the cranial remains of deceased players, but the road to this point has been fraught with backroom arguments, public feuds, and more than a little bad blood. Maybe the participation of NFL sources would have been a distraction from the empirical story that League of Denial tells — but it’s hard to imagine that, from the league’s perspective, having a spokesperson on camera to tell its side of the story (whatever that is) could have been worse than leaving Frontline’s version of events totally unchallenged.

League of Denial is powerful television and a must-see for anyone who knows someone playing contact sports — which include soccer, hockey, and more — but it also, of course, implicitly addresses our personal guilt on a subliminal level. Football isn’t enjoyed in a vacuum. It makes $10 billion a year in revenue because we pay them that money, so there’s some implicit responsibility that should be felt by a majority of viewers. (How much so may depend on how recently you bought your last Jets hoodie or reupped your Sunday Ticket package on DirecTV.)

But that’s not League of Denial’s main concern. It’s mostly about education, not outrage. The more we know about head trauma and concussions, the more we can try to understand why it is that CTE has been found in the brains of 18-year-old high school kids and 21-year-old college players, or why ex-linebacker Junior Seau would drive his Cadillac SUV off a cliff, only to survive and then later shoot himself dead in his own home.

The closer we get to those answers, the more responsible sports fans we might hope to become. And if nothing else, League of Denial leaves us feeling like we know more than we ever have before — but have much more work to do.

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