- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2013


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.

This matters.

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.

The film’s lack of groundbreaking details don’t equate to diminished importance. The story travels from Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Webster’s ugly decline to doctors pulling an unnamed former player’s brain from a bucket to examine it for the devastating neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It explores the NFL’s rampant marketing of violent hits to the trickle-down impact on college and youth football. There are documents unearthed by ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, whose book of the same name formed the basis for the film. There’s an audio recording from 1994 where commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the real problem with concussions was “a journalist issue.”

Goodell isn’t the only one who looks bad. NFL-associated doctors diminish concussion-related problems in the sordid history that portrays them as being dragged kicking and screaming into admitting anything is amiss.

In one unfortunate sequence, respected Boston University researcher, Dr. Ann McKee, wonders if sexism played a role in her CTE discoveries being attacked by the NFL establishment. In response, Dr. Henry Feuer, team neurologist for the Colts and a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine committee, suggested McKee was awkward and something about her manner didn’t sit well with him, then repeatedly stumbled over his words in an extended clip.

Another doctor, Bennett Omalu, wished he never discovered CTE in Webster’s brain. Never even heard of Webster. Never got caught up in the NFL’s brain-rattling problem. His are words and bitter and broken.

“You can’t go against the NFL,” he said in the film. “They’ll squash you.”

The words haunt almost as much as those of the children and widows.

Don’t mistake “League of Denial” for an anti-football polemic. Instead, it’s as comprehensive and restrained history of the NFL’s head-shaking problem as you’ll find. The problem that won’t disappear any time soon.

The film, really, is a warning. The cost is right in front of us, complete with ominous music and subdued narration. We can’t say we didn’t know.

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