On Sunday, like more than a few Americans, I spent a lot of my morning and afternoon watching football.
I yelled at my TV as Tom Brady’s wide receivers dropped one catchable pass after another. And when the Patriots were done losing in a rainy morass, I concentrated my attentions on my fantasy team and yelled at my TV as that squad went down in flames as well.
The fantasy thing already made me feel guilty anyway. Because of matchups, I was starting Michael Vick at quarterback, which ended up being a bad idea on several levels, but briefly left me rooting for Michael Vick.
Then I watched a screener for Frontline’s “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” and felt even worse.
No matter how anybody tries portraying it, the antagonist in “League of Denial” isn’t the sport of football, though it’s hard to imagine any parent watching the two-hour special and not coming away with at least minor concerns regarding the long-term damaged caused by the inherent nature of the sport, regardless of what level it’s played on.
Football is portrayed as dangerous. Sure.
The NFL is portrayed as criminal, as either negligent or nefariously conspiratorial, and there’s little doubt that people who watch “League of Denial” will have a hard time looking at Roger Goodell and Paul Tagliabue’s empire in the same way, much less cheer on a punishingly hard hit with the same bloodthirsty vigor.
But “League of Denial” isn’t just an anti-NFL smear job. No, by refusing even cursory participation in “League of Denial,” the NFL has pretty well smeared itself and the assumed causality of ESPN’s decision to largely bail on the report has left its own bruises.
Like any good David & Goliath story, “League of Denial” correctly assumes that the hype machine has long worked in favor of the Goliath and it focuses on the myriad Davids in the attempts to learn more about connections between long-term brain injuries and football. That’s why even though “League of Denial” will stir up anger and frustration and sadness, my dominant takeaway was compassion for the wounded athletes and their loved ones and admiration for the crusaders who, for the most part, don’t want to bring the NFL down. No, the heroes of “League of Denial” are simply people who want to learn more, people who want the NFL to use its resources to gain knowledge, rather than concentrate its might on obfuscating. So “League of Denial” is disheartening, but it’s also inspiring.
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ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru provide the spine for “League of Denial,” as it stems from their book of the same name. This is often a dangerous spot for a journalist to be in, becoming the focus of a documentary. Rick Rowley’s “Dirty Wars,” for example, felt harrowing and important to me in inverse proportion with its self-aggrandizing worship of journalist Jeremy Scahill. The more that documentary became about Scahill learning things and less about the things Scahill learned, the less effective it was for me, personally.
Veteran “Frontline” director Michael Kirk, working with Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, wisely concentrates on the fruits of the investigation rather than the journalistic adventures. Even New York Times reporter Alan Schwartz’s story about being slipped confidential NFL documents is recounted with a self-aware acknowledgement that it sounds like the stuff of a political thriller, rather than as hagiography with the dogged reporter at the center.
It’s not that these scribes aren’t proud of the work that they’ve done, but they have the sense to let the spotlight mainly shine on other admirable characters, who also wouldn’t be out of place in a legal potboiler, think “Any Given Sunday” meets “A Civil Action.”
There’s Nigerian-born former Pittsburgh medical examiner Bennet Omalu, who knew nothing about the NFL, but performed an autopsy on Steelers great Mike Webster and knew immediately that something was very wrong.
There’s former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski, who wrote the book “Head Games” (made into a documentary by Steve James) and has carved out a reputation as a concussion expert, while wondering what his experiences with contact sports have done to his own brain.
There’s BU neuropathologist Ann McKee, raised in a football-loving family, now standing up for her research and findings against boardrooms of NFL-provided doctors and lawyers.
There are Pam Webster and Lisa McHale, wives of deceased football players, who couldn’t understand why their husbands changed after their careers ended and merely want answers for why they became widows well before their time.
And there are the many interviews with former players and agents giving first-hand testimony. The most shocking moment finds super-agent Leigh Steinberg remembering client Troy Aikman’s disorientation following a knee-to-the-head in a 1994 postseason game. Steven Young remembering the end of his career after what was his seventh concussion also hits home. The almost relief that comes from seeing how cogent Young remains — some viewers of his own ESPN reporting might prefer I call Young “relatively cogent” — is punctured by interviews with Mike Webster’s kids or with Junior Seau’s son, talking about the Hall of Famer’s last days.
Webster and McHale help fuel the vein of sadness that runs through “League of Denial,” Nowinski the vein of optimism. And McKee and Omalu, definitely the characters I’d build a feature film around, fuel the mystery element, as they recount discoveries involving brains that I can’t help but imagine being carried out in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. And yes, there’s a macabre humor to the number of times the “Frontline” narrator says “brains” and you’d find it inappropriate to reflexively chuckle, but once you have people referring to Nowinski as The Brain Handler, you remember like so many horrifying situations, the people living within the world are prone to finding tiny doses of humor just to make the work manageable.
Is “League of Denial” one-sided in its findings? Well, yes. Of course it is. It’s simultaneously on the right side of history, plus it’s not like the NFL wasn’t offered the chance to provide its point-of-view. Instead, most of the NFL’s point-of-view comes internal documents and second-hand from the reporters who dealt with Tagliabue, Goodell and their underlings over the year. However, while McKee’s perspective is the primary reading, it’s not the only interpretation. Several of the doctors who contributed to early, misleading NFL reports on head trauma admit that what they wrote was not, perhaps, as nuanced as it needed to be. For straight-up villainy, you get Henry Feuer, the former Colts physician who condescendingly derides McKee for suggesting that the male doctors on the NFL payroll were condescending to her. But not all of the alternative voices end up looking as bad as Feuer. Toward the end of the documentary, after McKee gives her very black-and-white perspective on the across-the-board dangers of football, a number of doctors respond that although she may be right, we’re still in the early days of studying the correlation and/or causation of football to brain injuries and that more research is needed.
Ultimately, that’s the key thesis of “League of Denial” and the key point on which the NFL is found lacking: There’s something to this. It’s possible and even probable that there’s more to brain injuries among football players than exclusively being hit too many times in the head. Every brain is different. Every body has been treated differently, both in natural conditioning, but also in terms of the ingestion of illegal substances. Every position on the field incurs different punishment. The malevolent act on the part of the NFL was denying even the possible linkages and actively thwarting, maligning and undermining research that proved otherwise. Whether the “denial” of the title consists of deadly neglect or a more willful cover-up is open to debate, but the NFL has known that a problem exists for over a decade and yet The League is only now beginning to acknowledge the problem and only slowly beginning to funnel the smallest pittance of its billions in profit towards advanced study. “League of Denial” says this is a conversation that must be had and that the NFL is stifling conversation.
And even still, the NFL continues to skate by. “League of Denial” goes up to the recent $765 million dollar settlement with former players claiming head injuries, a settlement that represents well under half of what ESPN pays annually for its rights to the NFL and a settlement that includes no admission of liability or guilt.
“League of Denial” is getting more publicity than your typical “Frontline” segment and a lot of that has to do with ESPN’s spineless recusal from participation (the network has still done some promoting for “League of Denial” tied to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru). I don’t feel much need to talk about that. Yes, this is a piece of reporting and filmmaking that you’d think a news-gathering organization like ESPN would want to be involved in, but whether the network was acting out of excessive caution or sheer cowardice, they decided not to. It’s just bad luck that ESPN Films is in the midst of a somewhat lackluster crop of recent 30 for 30 docs, after completing the admirable-but-disappointing Nine for IX series. ESPN could have used “League of Denial” as a feather in its cap, rather than as a mark of embarrassment.
Oh well. “League of Denial” is powerful and provocative stuff and merits attention no matter how it’s airing.
“League of Denial” premieres on Tuesday, October 8 at 9 p.m. on PBS.