The long-awaited Frontline feature documentary League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis aired last night, putting Pittsburgh in the spotlight for both good and bad reasons.
The documentary was a joint project of PBS and Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who wrote the accompanying book and have reported on the NFL concussion crisis in the past. The Fainaru brothers have reported in the past for ESPN, which, until August, was a co-producer of League of Denial. In August, ESPN abruptly ended its participation in the project, allegedly because of pressure from the NFL.
If the NFL was worried about League of Denial making it look bad as an organization, the worry was warranted. While plenty has been reported in recent years on concussions, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and football, the Frontline doc laid out a comprehensive history of the matter, highlighting the work of Dr. Bennet Omaru, formerly of the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office, and Dr. Ann McKee, of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Pittsburgh plays a starring role — for better and worse — in the documentary.
It opens with Omalu, then working in Allegheny County, performing an autopsy on Mike Webster, the Steelers center from the 1970s who died in 2002 at the age of 50. Omalu, a native of Nigeria who professed to know little about American football, says he was shocked by the condition Webster was in physically — estimating that most of his body seemed to better befit a man in his 70s. He examined Webster's brain — Webster had in recent years acted erratically — and found evidence of CTE, a degenerative brain disease. Webster's family sued the NFL for damages based on the NFL's retirement plan, which they argued should have covered the disease because it stemmed from his playing days.
The documentary then follows a string of players, many Steelers, who died and whose brains were examined and found to have CTE: Terry Long and Justin Strelczyk both committed suicide.
Both Omalu and McKee are lightning rods, of course; Omalu's findings about CTE, which connected the disease to professional football, were criticized by the NFL at the time, and still are. (The producers' most serious ire is reserved for former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his posse; his successor, Roger Goodell, is portrayed as trying a little harder to get to the bottom of the problem, but continuing to stall and resist any conclusion that might hurt football.)
At one point, Omalu, who lives and practices in California now, contends that he rues the day he examined Webster and began the CTE debate; that was what thrust him into a debate with the NFL, and, he says, "You can't go against the NFL. They will squash you."
The film made a special impact on Pittsburghers — take, for example, Zack Furness, a professor at Penn State-Greater Allegheny whose father, Steve Furness, was a defensive tackle for the Steelers in the '70s, and died in 2000, two years before Webster. Furness tweeted:
The film makes the accusation, based on documents that had been acquired by a New York Times reporter on the case, that the NFL knew far earlier that CTE was related to football injuries, and in fact had previously admitted so, but then backpedaled and began denying that there was a clear causal relationship. (Some on the NFL's side argue that CTE could be related to the use of steroids or other illegal substances, or other outside factors.)
The other big argument made in the documentary is that not just big, concussion-causing hits — the bone-crushing sacks and helmet-to-helmet tackles the NFL has cracked down on recently — but also the everyday smaller "sub-concussive" collisions can lead to CTE. It's hard to find a solution that doesn't involve the downfall of football in America — but then, as Frontline notes, it's hard, too, to picture football going anywhere. The NFL is an American phenomenon, and clubs are billion-dollar enterprises.
And as Omalu recalls in the film, some associated with the NFL don't want CTE to become synonymous with football — because if even a small percentage of American mothers became afraid of CTE and stopped their sons from playing ball as kids, the NFL as we know it would cease to exist.