There are a lot of conflicts of interest in the “Frontline” documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussions Crisis, which premieres tonight on PBS at 9. There is the conflict within the National Football League, which on the one hand was in the best position to understand the likely link between playing football and suffering permanent brain damage early on, and on the other hand had the greatest stake in delaying the widespread understanding of this link for as long as possible. Indeed, the film argues that the league largely caved to this latter interest, and that the analogy between it and Big Tobacco is valid.
There is the conflict within ESPN. The sports-media behemoth employs brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who did much of the reporting for the movie (as well as for their brand-new book, League of Denial). For most of the film’s production, ESPN collaborated with “Frontline.” But, in a move that got a ton of media attention, ESPN pulled out just a few weeks ago, with The New York Times reporting that the NFL pressured ESPN and its parent company, Disney, to ditch it. (They all deny it. It is worth noting that a documentary excerpt aired on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” and a book excerpt ran in ESPN The Magazine.) “ESPN—where we work—their new contract with the NFL is worth almost $2 billion a year,” Fainaru notes at one point during the movie (or the advance copy I viewed, anyway). “So they’re basically paying $120 million per game. That’s like the budget of a Harry Potter movie.”
There is the conflict of super-agent Leigh Steinberg, the inspiration for Jerry Maguire, who one season represented 21 starting NFL quarterbacks and slowly realized—as future Hall of Fame clients Troy Aikman and Steve Young sustained horrible concussions—that something was rotten in the state of the sport. And this conflict, in turn, is a convenient metonym for the conflict all football fans must negotiate as the evidence mounts that football might be a sport that human beings simply shouldn’t allow other human beings to play.
There is not a ton of brand-new such evidence in the documentary, directed by “Frontline” producer Michael Kirk. The cast of characters will be familiar to those who have followed the story relatively closely. Alan Schwarz, who received a Pulitzer nomination for covering football concussions for the Times, is featured. Doctors Bennet Omalu and Robert Cantu are prominent in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 New Yorker piece on the topic, as is Ann McKee, additionally the subject of a profile by sportswriter Jane Leavy. Ex-linebacker Junior Seau’s suicide and posthumous diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—the Great White Whale of the movie, the degenerative disease linked to early-onset dementia that McKee has found in 45 of the 46 NFL players’ brains she has examined—was national news. The film uses clips from HBO’s “Real Sports” and a Congressional hearing. Even the scoops—for example, that an effectively league-controlled retirement board paid $2 million in disability to three former players even while the league disputed that football could be responsible for their disabilities—have been previously reported (by the Fainarus).
What is groundbreaking about League of Denial, rather, is the cleanness, coherence, and conciseness of the storytelling (at a shade under two hours, it’s a bargain for your time). Plot points include legendary Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, the first player discovered to have Tau protein on the brain and therefore CTE; the NFL’s longstanding practice of marketing the biggest hits; the NFL’s hastily arranged Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, whose fecklessness is summarized by its name and which published more than a dozen papers that, in contradiction of several double-blind studies, purported to show no football-brain damage link; the slow but sure gathering of evidence for the football-brain damage link at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy; the NFL’s belated recognition of the problem and its response, which included some rules-tinkering which has done basically nothing to address the repeated sub-concussive hits offensive and defensive linemen sustain on most plays.
These stories are told in the classic “Frontline” style: Deep-voiced narrator, slow pan-ins on interview subjects, occasionally cheesy gimmicks (you can hear a saw as a brain-harvest is described), gruesome details like pictures from Mike Webster’s autopsy. After watching, you want to say you feel like you’ve been hit over the head, only to realize you have just learned how imprecise that cliché is.
I didn’t expect NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to come out looking so good. It’s not that he looks good, objectively. He deflects important questions, including those raised directly by the documentary (with which the NFL and Goodell refused to cooperate). He presides over the class-action settlement that may have foreclosed what would have been a useful discovery. By the end, Goodell’s NFL has implicitly repudiated its prior admissions: “There’s no more acknowledging a link exists,” observes Fainaru-Wada, “there’s: ‘The science is still emerging.’” But Goodell seems okay when compared to his odious predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, who in the 1990s dismissed concussions concerns as the obsession of “pack journalism” and appointed a rheumatologist to lead the league’s investigation (I don’t know what “rheuma-” is Latin or Greek for, but it ain’t brains). And Dr. Ira Casson, the neuropathologist who eventually was put in charge of the NFL’s internal probe, comes across as almost a comic-book villain, who at one point admits there is evidence of a link between brain disease and head trauma in sports—but only in boxing and steeplechase racing. McKee alleges that several league and team doctors were openly sexist when she presented her findings a few years ago at the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters (a former team doctor denies this).
McKee is one of several compelling talking heads who hammer home the narrative’s implicit points. Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson states flatly, “The human body was not created or built to play football.” Steve Young, who stopped playing after a particularly brutal concussion, says, “I worry about my linemen brothers. I worry about my running back brothers.” Reporter Peter Keating argues persuasively that kicking the ball down the road represented victory for a league whose annual revenue now tops $9 billion. “Sure looks like it was just a relentless and endless delaying action,” he alleges. “Year after year after year, at crisis after crisis after crisis, the concussions committee and its members assured the public the league was looking into this. The league never got around to looking at it in any valid way. We’re talking in the year 2013. This committee was founded in 1994. Maybe there should be better evidence by now.”
If this were funny, the punch line would be that Keating is a reporter at ESPN. Ditto the Fainarus. Jane Leavy’s profile appeared on Grantland, an ESPN site. And yesterday, after “Monday Night Football,” Steve Young could be seen opining about the Atlanta Falcons’ prospects on ESPN. Which is proof that ESPN is better than we give it credit for—still a source for fearless criticism of its most important business partner—and worse than we give it credit for—second only to the NFL itself in its self-awareness of the poison it peddles.
Of course, somebody’s still got to drink it. The allegations that ESPN caved to corporate pressure remain troubling. But as Fainaru-Wada, a San Francisco 49ers season ticket-holder, reminds us in his chilling closing peroration, we may look back to realize that we were all part of the same hypocrisy.