When I was in elementary school, the only part of the school day I looked forward to was playing football at recess. I grew up in Wisconsin, and the mid–90s was a good time to be a Packers fan—the Mike Holmgren glory years. My friends and I would draw up our plays and pretend we were Brett Favre, tossing TDs to Shannon Sharpe and Robert Brooks, handing off to Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens. My best friend was a perpetual team captain, and even though I was clearly the worst football player out there, I could always count on him to not pick me last. That’s what friends do.
There was just one problem for us: The school administrators would never let us play tackle. On the gridiron of Cooper Elementary, four-hand touch ruled, until our principal banned even that, and we had to resort to two-hand touch. If they weren’t watching, we tackled anyway. Usually, nobody got hurt. But every now and then, two kids would run into each other, you’d hear the clang of skulls clashing, one of them wouldn’t get up, and we’d stand around and hope they would before a grownup noticed something was wrong.
I’ve never put on a football uniform, but those days on the playground came back to me yesterday when I finally got around to watching League of Denial, PBS Frontline’s excruciating two-hour special on how the NFL spent over a decade covering up and attempting to destroy a growing body of scientific evidence linking football to long-term brain damage and CTE. There’s not much new to report, but to see the full body of evidence against the NFL so compellingly told is nothing short of damning. It highlights the NFL’s hypocrisy, selling its violence while hiding its consequences. And although it doesn’t say so explicitly, it inevitably questions our own complicity in consuming a sport so cruel to those we pay to play it.
League of Denial is in part a straightforward whistleblower narrative, and it finds its heroes and villains quickly. One hero is Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh medical examiner who discovered and published the first known case of CTE in an NFL player, Steelers center Mike Webster. Another is Ann McKee, the Boston University brain researcher and lifelong football fan who would go on to find it 45 of her 46 cases. That inner juxtaposition was perfectly captured in one shot that brought a smile to my face: a NY Giants helmet on her bookshelf next to a boxed copy of Endnote, a software tool academics use to manage references and bibliographies. (Personally, I prefer BibTeX.)
With similar economy, the film needs only two lines of taut narration to establish one bad guy of the mid–90s: “NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue orchestrated the league’s response. Tagliabue had begun his career as a lawyer.”
It was he who dismissed the concussion crisis as the manufactured product of “pack journalism” and personally appointed a rheumatologist to a sham medical committee to “investigate” the issue. The committee cranked out shoddy papers with sweeping denials based on small sample sizes that the editor-in-chief of the journal Neurosurgery, himself a consultant for the New York Giants, accepted over the objections of his own sports section editor.
As the film chronicles the researchers’ struggle to raise awareness, clashing with the NFL’s panel of experts, there are plenty of chilling moments:
- Bennet Omalu, reflecting on the entire episode: “I wish I had never met Mike Webster. CTE has drawn me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you. I really sincerely wished it didn’t cross my path of life. Seriously.”
- Mike Nowinski co-director of BU’s CTE research center, who went from a Harvard football player to pro wrestler, taking countless blows to the head along the way: “What motivated me every day was that my head was killing me.”
- And the haunting voiceover of Junior Seau in an NFL Films production, years before he would succumb to CTE at only 43 years old and put a bullet through his heart, preserving his brain for research: “You have to sacrifice your body. You have to sacrifice years down the line. When we’re 40, 50 years old, we probably won’t be able to walk. That’s the sacrifice that you take to play this game.”
The other central figures of the documentary are the journalists themselves. The film is based mostly on reporting by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who both work for ESPN. And as it goes on, it acquires a muckraking metanarrative, as the Fainarus and New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz (who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his coverage) work to cover the story. This is only enhanced by the fact that ESPN, who had collaborated with Frontline for most of the production, suddenly pulled out just weeks before it was to air. Although the network claimed they quit because they didn’t exercise “full editorial control,” the New York Times reported it was due to NFL pressure applied personally by Roger Godell. (Both the NFL and ESPN denied this, and ESPN has since aired excerpts of the documentary and promoted the Fainaru’s book of the same name.)
Although the film is built upon a David vs. Goliath structure, at its core is a health and science issue: can playing football cause CTE? It plays out not on the field or in dramatic Congressional hearings but in stuffy medical journals. League of Denial is at its most innovative when its reporters make this academic prose leap off the page. A key moment is a letter to the editor in which the NFL’s in-house concussion committee calls on Omalu to retract his paper. In ESPN’s Peter Keating’s retelling, this is the league going after him “with a vengeance…like a nuclear missile strike on his reputation!”
But the propulsive narrative struggles to capture fine detail. As in many a science story, the “more work must be done” caveats from independent sources are shoehorned in at the end. The way the film treats McKee’s accusation of sexism on the part of the NFL’s researchers is awkward and unsure, and a less than illuminating glance at the insidious ways in which sexism can infect academia. And there’s a big story left uninvestigated: How did the NFL committee’s papers, with their bad science and obvious conflicts of interest, get published in a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal in the first place?
But those aren’t things that the filmmakers chose to focus on, which is fine. Although there’s nothing new here, League of Denial stands as a definitive document of the subject—for now. The issue of concussions will not go away, and continue to resonate as more research is done into the troubling preliminary results of CTE found in teenagers who played football.
But maybe the biggest repercussions will be with the viewers. Like most football fans, I’ve been following this sad, depressing story for a while now, and it’s changed the way I see the sport. For the sake of argument, forget the outrageous deceit on the part of the NFL. Simply knowing the full consequences of the sport’s violent nature makes me question whether my own enjoyment of it is ethical. Does the fact that the players (now) knowingly accept the risk let me off the hook? I’ll say this: the visceral thrill of watching a big hit is gone. Or rather, it’s immediately replaced by nagging doubt: How many future memories does that one hit erase?
I’ve had versions of this conversation with several of my friends—usually over beer at bar while watching football. We just can’t pull ourselves away. Even as my childhood hero Brett Favre says he can’t recall what sports his own daughter plays, and that “God only knows the toll” that football takes.
I’m glad my mom never saw us play tackle.