Amid the big-name doctors and Pro Football Hall of Famers are the quiet, quivering voices of the collateral damage from the NFL’s decades-long brain injury problem.
The voices linger long after “League of Denial,” the much-anticipated Frontline investigation that premiers Tuesday on PBS, ends.
They are the children and widows of men whose minds and lives unraveled after NFL careers as the league energetically manufactured doubt about the role on-field head injuries played in devastated lives.
Pam Webster. Lisa McHale. Eleanor Perfetto. Gina Seau.
They live with the pain each day.
Garrett Webster. Colin Webster. Sydney Seau. Tyler Seau.
They’re the most powerful part of the two-hour film, the tear-stained reality of losing your father or husband before he’s actually dead. Of tasers and suicide attempts and overdoses and gentle, intelligent men disintegrating after their careers end. Listen to their hellish journeys and football will be difficult to watch in the same way.
Billed as the “hidden story” of the NFL and concussions, the film offers no jaw-dropping revelations. Nothing that won’t already familiar to even casual observers of the concussion epidemic that’s sprawled to include a proposed $765 million settlement with former players in head injury litigation against the league. The film, instead, is a methodical, sedate assault of uncomfortable fact after uncomfortable fact that sends an unmistakeable message to those unfamiliar with the crisis or unwilling to engage.
Sham science. Buried studies. Lives ripped apart off the field. League-backed doctors denying the long-term impact of head injuries. Attacking those daring to dissent from the shield. Slick public relations efforts. And money. Lots of money that is the league’s lifeblood.
Each minute of the film builds a picture of the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell that couldn’t be less flattering. They claim no priority is higher than safety, but the documents and interviews and recordings show a league more concerned, instead, with dodging responsibility and pushing the problem down the road.
Last week Goodell sent an email to fans in advance of the film, though the link isn’t mentioned, touting the league’s safety advances in recent years.
Those public relations-friendly words are easy for the multi-billion business that didn’t cooperate with the film. The other side is more apparent in clips like one near the end of the film, when Goodell told an interviewer in February that links between head trauma and long-term problems remain unclear. More study is needed. That echoed the league’s message when it established the since-disbanded Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994.
There’s always more study needed. There are never any definitive conclusions. The damage continues.