To stand on the sideline of an NFL game is not only to understand how brain damage can be inflicted by football but also to be amazed that an ambulance isn’t called on every play.
Yet the NFL refuses to acknowledge any link between blows to the head and cognitive impairment, despite graphic, grotesque and high-definition illustrations to the contrary.
The NFL has never admitted that our violent national pastime caused players to lose their minds. The NFL dismissed the connection again while simultaneously agreeing to pay $765 million to retired players who sued for their lingering pain. In fact, the NFL’s 20-year effort to ignore or obfuscate the effect of concussions hasn’t ended and probably never will. That was the most outrageous conclusion among several explained in the Frontline documentary League of Denial, which aired Tuesday on PBS.
Denial is the perfect description of the league’s mind-set and strategy.
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Only through denial could the NFL not be moved to act by the sad stories of Tom McHale, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman who suffered from early onset dementia and died of a drug overdose at age 45, or Mike Webster, the former Pittsburgh Steelers center who spent the last chapter of his life in a confused, depressed, angry state, duct-taping the cracked skin of his feet, Super-Gluing teeth back into his mouth and living in his pickup truck before he died at age 50.
Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu was shocked by the amount of scar tissue on Webster’s forehead. When Omalu examined Webster’s brain, his diagnosis was chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease. Omalu made the same diagnosis when he examined the brain of ex-Steeler Terry Long.
The NFL tried to discredit Omalu, likening his research to “voodoo.”
“If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football,” Omalu said he was warned during a meeting with an NFL doctor. “I wish I had never met Mike Webster. You can’t go against the NFL; they’ll squash you.”
At every step of the growing concussion crisis, the NFL responded with heartlessness toward its players and disregard for science.
Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who waved off newspaper reports on the dangers of concussions as “pack journalism,” created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee to study the issue, but it was headed by Dr. Elliot Pellman — the Jets team doctor and a Guadalajara-trained rheumatologist, not a neurologist. Over the years the committee wrote 16 papers downplaying concussions as minor injuries that shouldn’t prevent players from returning to games even moments after coming off the field in a dazed condition. When Pellman was replaced by Dr. Ira Casson, Casson gave his famous “Dr. No” interview on 60 Minutes repeating the denials.
The league consistently marginalized the advocacy of Chris Nowinski and the work of Dr. Ann McKee. Nowinski convinced the families of deceased football players to donate their brains to Boston University’s research center, where McKee’s examinations have revealed CTE in 45 of 46 NFL cases. McKee also found CTE in the brains of a college player who committed suicide and a high school player who died following a concussion.
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.