The Frontline documentary was based on the forthcoming book by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who also wrote the Barry Bonds and BALCO expose, Game of Shadows. One of their most impactful interviews was with agent Leigh Steinberg, who described his conversation with concussed Troy Aikman. Three times within about 30 minutes Aikman asked Steinberg where he was and what had happened, and three times Steinberg repeated the news that the Cowboys were going to the Super Bowl.
The NFL, compared to Big Tobacco at a congressional hearing, has made some reforms to the rules on hits, procedures for clearing concussed players and amount of contact in practice.
Then a player like Alex Smith — exercising caution in letting his brain heal — loses his job to Colin Kaepernick, or Jahvid Best finds himself out of football after an incomplete recovery.
The other side of the concussion problem is resistance from the players and their union in admitting brain injury. A league in denial makes it necessary for its stars to be in denial, too. None of them are quitting the sport in fear for their future sanity.
What’s at stake? Millions of dollars in salary for the athletes and mega-billions for the entertainment industry of football, whose foothold in American culture starts at the grass-roots Pee Wee level.
The denial starts at the top but trickles down through our football-loving society, where the crunchiest collisions get the loudest cheers. The forgetful, broken old men simply got the tradeoff that came due. The concussion crisis won’t ever end until the risk of dementia by age 50 outweighs the reward of youthful glory.