The two-hour "League of Denial" episode of "Frontline" will not be comfortable for NFL fans to watch. However, it's important if you care about the concussion issue and how it's affecting the sport.
The episode, which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) is based on the findings of the "League of Denial" book, and it's is a powerful piece of journalism. The show digs beyond the (also important) anecdotes of former NFL players suffering through physical strife after their careers. It details how the NFL allegedly put off the problem, ignored and belittled scientific research that made a connection between concussions and long-term brain damage and made questionable decisions on staffing its controversial Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee. For anyone who hasn't intently followed the concussion situation and the NFL's handling of it, the show does a great job explaining how it has developed since the turn of the century. It will probably change how you feel about the issue. The NFL reached a $765 million settlement in August over concussion-related injuries among its 18,000 retired players.
The clip at the top of this post from the documentary shows the end of 49ers quarterback Steve Young's NFL career, when he suffered his seventh concussion on a huge hit from Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams. Young states that even after he got up from being knocked cold and ran to the sideline, he knew what he was experiencing was not right. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, had some poignant comments about how he felt seeing high-profile clients like Young suffer injuries that might bother them later in life.
"The damage was occurring every week," Steinberg said. "I had people who I loved and cared for. I intuitively knew this was not just a football issue, if it was happening to football players in the pros, it was happening in college, it was happening in high school, in was happening to every player in every collision sport. Not only was it an issue for my clients, it was a huge societal issue."
The documentary is based on the work of reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-writers of the book. The show is mostly one-sided in showing the NFL's fault on the issue, but it also does point out the arguments against linking the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and football. There is still a small research sample; not everyone who has played football has the disease, and most of the brains that have been studied have come from former players who were already distressed, not the former players who led normal post-playing lives.
Still, it's an intense and comprehensive look at a very important situation for the future of the NFL. It's a complicated issue. No NFL fan wants to confront the reality of how brain injuries could negatively affect the sport going forward. That doesn't mean the problem is going away.
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