Will PBS Deliver the Death Blow to the NFL?

By Evin Demirel

All photos courtesy PBS

The NFL is the most powerful and popular sports league in the country. At this point, it might be the most dominant institution in America, period. In its 93 years, it’s grown to become both an altar of mainstream manhood and a multibillion-dollar industry that puts on the most highly rated programs on TV. The NFL is so big that fantasy football, a game for grown men where you watch players compile numbers in another game, generates a billion dollars a year by itself. By now you’re likely familiar with the widely accepted truth that all that tackling involved in the sport damages players’ brains, often horrifically—Alan SchwarzNew York Times reporting on that subject started way back in 2007. But if you watch the sport, you probably don’t care enough to stop watching.

PBS’s Frontline is going to try to make you care more.

League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, a documentary airing tonight based on a book that was released today, is the most direct assault on the league to date. The film not only reviews the by-now-at-least-faintly-familiar evidence that football collisions are very bad for you, it exposes the NFL’s attempts to cover up the damage the sport does to young men’s brains. The league’s executives and doctors come off as myopic and foolish at best, and scheming and evil at worst—in story after story, League shows NFL players dying after losing their minds due to what most independent doctors agree is football-induced brain damage, then the NFL is shown repeatedly denying the connection between football and the broken families it has left behind.

One of the most powerful stories is that of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center who helped lead Pittsburgh to four championships in the 70s. Webster retired in 1991, only to watch his mind and body slowly deteriorate. The man once known as “Iron Mike” developed dementia and acquired a gruesome assortment of bodily aches and pill addictions before ending up homeless, “glassy-eyed like a punch-drunk boxer, huddled alone, staring into space night after night at the Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh,” as ESPN.com’s Greg Garber put it. League of Denial exhumes footage from a TV interview shot during Webster’s waning years that shows how jumbled his thoughts had become. “Everybody went through trauma as a kid, I’m not saying I’m different than that,” he tells the interviewer in the clip. “I’m just saying…” Webster looks away for seven seconds. “The things we do one another, OK….” He pauses for another six seconds. “Hell, I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m just tired and confused right now. I can’t say it the way I want to say it. I could answer this real easy at other times, but right now I’m just tired.”

Webster died in 2002. When Dr. Bennet Omalu, a junior pathologist trained in neuropathology, examined the player's brain, he quickly discovered that it hadn’t been shriveled by Alzheimer’s as he had assumed. It looked normal on the outside but its cells had been strangled by excess tau proteins released after collisions. Omalu thus became the first doctor to diagnose an NFL player with the progressive neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Omalu thought the league’s research arm, the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee (MTBI), would welcome his resulting paper as a way to help NFL players. The MTBI, which was founded in 1994, hadn’t yet acknowledged a link between football and brain damage, but surely this would make the connection clear, right? Nope. Instead, Omalu was attacked by the MTBI even as more and more independent researchers backed his findings. NFL doctors told Omalu he should retract his findings and attempted to discredit him, continuing the attacks even as more former football players with CTE came to light.

“‘Bennet, do you know the implications of what you’re doing?’” Omalu recalled being asked by a league doctor. “He said, ‘If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.’”

League aims to let the facts speak for themselves, but it’s a strikingly one-sided documentary, possibly because the NFL refused to comment on anything. It's hard to watch it and not come to the conclusion that the NFL lied for years about how dangerous its sport is—and if enough people believe that narrative, it could destroy football in its current form as that doctor feared. That would put League in the ranks of famous pieces of muckraking journalism like Jacob Riis’s 1890 book of photos of New York City slums, How the Other Half Lives, which led to reforms that improved the lives of tenement dwellers; Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel The Jungle, which paved the way for improvements in meatpacking plants; and the 60 Minutes episode featuring whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand that revealed that the tobacco industry was knowingly adding carcinogens to its cigarettes.

Even if the documentary doesn’t make a similar splash, it’s certainly compiled a damning case against the NFL. One of the world’s leading authorities on the topic, Dr. Ann McKee, told the filmmakers she thinks it’s possible every athlete in pro football has CTE in one form or another, and that the condition may also affect high school and college players. This means there are tens of millions of former and current players who are potentially susceptible to the disease’s long-term effects—anger, agitation, a loss of focus and memory. Even those who don’t care about football should care about what resembles a public health crisis.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at a press conference to discuss the state of the National Football League at the 2009 Super Bowl. Photo by UPI Photo/Landov

Another thing non-fans should note: taxpayers shell out billions to the NFL and other sports leagues in the form of subsidies for stadiums and tax breaks for the owners, many of whom are billionaires. Meanwhile, league commissioner Roger Goodell pulls down a cool $11 million in salary running what is for tax purposes a nonprofit organization—an odd nonprofit organization, given that it makes billions of dollars from selling broadcasting rights.

The league continues to play the part of the evil establishment that deserves to be exposed in all its ugliness. It's blocked every attempt by journalists to ask its executives questions about any of the controversies that have been reported on by every outlet that covers the sport. When football writer Gregg Easterbrook requested an interview with Goodell for his book The King of Sports the league agreed, only to cancel when Easterbrook said he wanted to talk about tax exemptions and health issues. “League spokesman Greg Aiello told me it was not in the NFL’s ‘best interests’ to discuss safety or subsidies,” Easterbrook wrote in the Atlantic.

Not only did the NFL not give League any access to any officials, it has apparently attempted to minimize the documentary’s impact in nefarious ways. ESPN was involved with producing the film, but distanced itself from it in August after apparent pressure from the league. Since ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion a year to show Monday Night Football games, the conflicting interests were glaring, though ESPN claimed it pulled out because it didn’t have enough editorial control. And Steve Fainaru*, one of the reporters from ESPN who helped lead the investigative team and coauthored the accompanying book, told Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, “When we published stories [at ESPN], they were almost universally opposed to those stories and fought them and complained to our editors and our editors’ editors and tried to either get those either altered or killed.”

Fans will watch League of Denial and continue to give the NFL their money—it’s possible they’re in denial as well. They've heard all of this stuff about football and concussions before. But the film’s barrage of awful facts and evidence of NFL obfuscation is shocking to take in all at once, and after you’re through with the film, you can’t help but feel that the league’s days of dominance are numbered, even if League isn’t what ultimately destroys it. It’s not that football is too violent, it’s that we now know too much about that violence’s effects. A tipping point of mothers who find the sport dangerous will inevitably be reached, and football will become yet another relic of America’s past, one of those things it’s embarrassing we used to love.

Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled Steve Fainaru's name.

Evin Demirel has written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, SB Nation Longform, SLAM, Slate, the Classical, and the New York Times. He Tweets for himself at @evindemirel and indulges in rampant Arko-centrism at thesportsseer.com.

More on the NFL:

Can You Tell the Difference Between an NFL Player and a Car Crash Victim?

Super Bowl Media Day… On Acid!

Notes from a Hitter: How Football Battered My Brain

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