Several Washington Redskins players said this week they did not see the PBS broadcast of “League of Denial,” a detailed look at the NFL’s concussion issue and how the league mishandled it over the last 30 years.
But if the first two hours of the PBS “Frontline” program escaped their attention this week, the issue of concussions is all too prevalent amongst current NFL players.
“We’ve been pretty saturated with concussion information and studies,” Redskins defensive lineman Barry Cofield. “I think everyone’s aware of the risks, and I just think that the medical improvements have gotten to a point now where it’s better than ever.”
The documentary, originally scheduled to air on ESPN, but moved to PBS in two segments, was first broadcast on Monday with the second part set for Oct. 15. It opens with the sad case of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who within a decade of his career ending in 1991 was crippled by a previously unknown disease - chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Webster’s memory became erratic, his personality changed, his marriage ruined and, near the end of his life, he was homeless. Webster died in 2002 at age 50.
The NFL has come a long way from how concussions were treated through the 1990s, though even now the league’s own concussion specialists dispute some of the science behind the CTE diagnosis. Does the plight of these old-time NFL players resonate with current players? Even recent big names like Junior Seau, a longtime star linebacker for the San Diego Chargers who shot himself in the chest last year, tested positive for CTE in his autopsy.
“It does because it impacts the way things were looked at,” Redskins safety Reed Doughty said. “Even when I got in the league, how differently things have changed. So I think it’s an ongoing, progressive look at how you can make the game safer and make it better.”
Doughty, too, didn’t watch “League of Denial.” But he is aware of stories like Webster’s or former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, who shot himself in 2006 and presented with the tau protein that is a hallmark of CTE.
Cofield says all the attention has trickled down to the playing field. The days of players “getting their bell rung” – a euphemism for concussion symptoms – and simply going back into the game without a second thought are changing.
“The emphasis has definitely increased, the whole protocol,” Cofield said. “And you just see more guys being aware of it, guys looking out for their teammates. I think awareness has improved, and that was the goal of all the studies and that’s been a positive.”
The NFL for years denied concussions were a serious problem and, according to the documentary, too often cherry-picked limited data to bolster that case. The league on Aug. 29 settled a $765 million class-action lawsuit with thousands of retired players, deceased or living. The money is meant to help the ones who developed cognitive-related issues after their careers ended or their families. The NFL did not, however, admit liability.
Things are improved now, but they are far from perfect. More studies need to be done to determine if football at all levels – NFL, college, high school, youth - can be made safe for players, or show once and for all that is an impossible one.
“I think policies are easier changed than the culture,” Doughty said. “I think that’s harder to change. There’s a lot that’s being done that’s good and there’s a lot that’s being done that’s maybe a little bit of a front.”