Major Takeaways from 'League of Denial: NFL's Concussion Crisis' PBS Documentary

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2013

Tuesday night marked what could be a landmark evening for the NFL and its future, as PBS' Frontline aired its much-anticipated documentary, League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis.

Helmed by reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who wrote a book of the same name, League of Denial exposes a decade-plus of NFL malfeasance and negligence when it comes to concussions and brain injury research. 

The film itself also became a lightning rod of controversy. Just weeks before it was due to air, ESPN, which initially partnered with Frontline and who employ Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, pulled its name from the documentary. 

Reports surfaced that the NFL pressured ESPN—specifically its parent company, Disney—to end its relationship with Frontline due to the contents of the film. ESPN, of course, currently holds broadcasting rights to the NFL's Monday Night Football package.

While all parties involved denied these accusations, the controversy only served to heighten the awareness and excitement for the film. If ESPN is pulling out at the last minute, what damning evidence could League of Denial expose?

Well, we now have the full picture. With that in mind, here are a few of the major takeaways from Tuesday night's airing of League of Denial on PBS.

Mike Webster's Heartbreaking Story Serves as a Catalyst for a Revolution

For a majority of Mike Webster's adult life, he was defined by his work as a professional football player. A center for the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Webster was seen as arguably the face of a franchise and city that prides itself on hard work and a blue-collar mentality.

But it's what came after Webster's career that will forever define his legacy but also serves as a catalyst for the film.

League of Denial opens with Webster's death. 

Dr. Bennet Omalu was the Pittsburgh-based doctor who performed an autopsy on Webster after he died in 2002. Unlike an overwhelming majority of his colleagues, Dr. Omalu did not know who Webster was. He saw him as another patient, one who looked two decades older than his 50 years of age. 

When examining his body, Dr. Omalu found multiple concerning areas. There were deep cracks in his feet that Webster used duct tape to hold together. His legs were a morass of veins and other ailments, with Webster suffering from cellulitis among other conditions.

What intrigued Dr. Omalu, also a neuropathologist, most, was Webster's brain. There was an obvious mass of scar tissue right at the top of his head, which would only be caused by repeated blows to the skull. When Dr. Omalu examined the brain, however, there were no issues found. It looked normal, not like a patient suffering from Alzheimer's. 

But Dr. Omalu had the brain frozen, and when he studied it more, the degenerative disease CTE was found.

Those who were around Webster had long known there was something going wrong with Webster's mind.

Cheerful and aware as a father and husband during his football career, Webster slowly became a "different person" after his career, according to his ex-wife Pam Webster, who divorced him just months before his death. 

He had wild, rage-filled mood swings, at one point taking a knife and slashing all his football pictures to pieces. His teeth had fallen out, so Webster had begun super-gluing them back onto his gums and making them stick. Colin Webster, Mike's son, told heartbreaking stories about his father's inability to remember where the grocery store was or that he couldn't even put on a jacket when was cold. 

By the time he was close to death, Webster was living in a pickup truck, divorced and far away from his days as a superstar.

"I think he was embarrassed," Pam Webster said of Mike. He was a leader on the team, he was Mike Webster. And then to be down to a place of poverty, a place where your brain can't function to finish a sentence without some help from Ritalin or whatever you need to function for a short period of time."

Beyond Webster, the Personal Stories Were Most Touching


At its surface, League of Denial is a journalistic endeavor. It's something to be viewed as a compilation of facts that show the NFL willfully held off on making concussion research and prevention a priority for years. Taken just on that alone, the film can be affecting.

But it's when the film veers left toward the personal side of things is where it really begins hitting home.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom McHale's story was similar to Webster's. He succumbed to drug abuse and fits with anger that slowly ruined his personal life before he died of a drug overdose. Lisa McHale, his wife, joined Boston University's fight against CTE and noted that families need to be made better aware of the situation. 

The stories of 21-year-old Owen Thomas and 18-year-old Eric Pelly were particularly wrenching. Thomas was a 21-year-old lineman at Penn, who committed suicide by hanging himself in 2010. Pelly was a high-school athlete who died after suffering a concussion in 2006.

Both young men showed signs of CTE. 

Couple that with the acknowledgement from former professional athletes Harry Carson, Chris Nowinski and others that they are probably living with CTE, and you can put faces on the ailment. The NFL was on trial here, but perhaps more interesting stories can be mined from studying the individual families behind the cases. 

The NFL Knew Brain Injuries Were Caused by Football Years in Advance

Roger Goodell and Paul Tagliabue before Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Florida on February 4, 2007.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Frustrated by what had become of his brain, Webster late in his life went to the NFL's Disability Committee and filed a claim to get a stipend for his injuries. Flanked by confirmations from multiple doctors, Webster claimed that football was the cause of his early onset dementia and confusion. 

The NFL, which had not given such disability payments prior, fought him every step of the way. Unwilling to trust the words of Webster's physicians, the league hired Dr. Edward Westbrook to examine Webster.

Dr. Westbrook concurred with the previous reports. Mike Webster's brain issues were suffered as a result of playing football. The NFL granted Webster disability and acknowledged in its report that his injuries were sustained as a result of playing football. 

It's worth noting here that these findings were made years in advance of the league's public acknowledgement of concussions. And that only happened after journalists found the documents in which the NFL made the statement. 

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee Part 1: Unwittingly Negligent or Corrupt Bully Pulpit?

New York Jets   #34 Running back Cedric  Houston being walked off the field by Jetr doctors Dr . Elliott Hershman MD team Orthopedist and Doctor Elliot J. Pellman Chairman of the Medical Department.  Houston was on crutches with his knee in a brace as he
Tom Berg/Getty Images

This is perhaps the most intriguing question posited by the film. The Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee was formed in 1994 by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who had earlier that year called the issue "pack journalism," a pejorative term that essentially accuses journalists of groupthink. 

The MTBI committee was designed to look into brain injuries and how playing football might work to cause them. At the time, the committee was unprecedented.

Also unprecedented, however, was Tagliabue's selection of Dr. Elliott Pellman to lead the MTBI committee. Dr. Pellman was a controversial figure not only because he served as a New York Jets physician but also had no background in brain research. He was a rheumatologist, specializing in joint disorders. 

What Dr. Pellman did have, however, was power. Under his leadership, the MTBI committee published 16 studies that appeared in publications like Neuropsychologythe Oxford Journal of Medicine's book on the brain. Each study found no serious injuries, and the initial research published in 2003 insisted that players could return to the same game after suffering concussions. 

This, on the surface, is fine. Plenty of incorrect research has been published and republished in medical journals, only for its findings to be refuted years later. Had the NFL done its studies without any evidence pointing to the contrary, well, there wouldn't be a documentary titled League of Denial.

Upon Neuropsychology publishing Dr. Omalu's findings of CTE in Webster, however, Pellman and the MTBI began an all-out character assault. They called his findings "voodoo," publicly told him to retract the study and claimed his interpretation of CTE was entirely wrong.  

Once Dr. Omalu published his second study—this time on another Steeler, Terry Long—he sat down one night for a meeting with an NFL doctor.

"If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football," the doctor told Omalu. 

Not too long after that conversation, Dr. Omalu left Pittsburgh and stepped mostly to the background in the fray. 

"I wish I never met Mike Webster," Dr. Omalu said. "You can't go against the NFL; they'll squash you."

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee Part 2: Dr. Ira Casson vs. The World

Dr. Ira Casson took over as the head of the MTBI from Dr. Pellman when Roger Goodell took over as NFL commissioner. Unlike Dr. Pellman, Dr. Casson was a renowned neurologist with a long background of studying the brain.

Dr. Casson was also a longtime member of the MTBI who had long denied any link between football and long-term brain trauma. He bullishly pushed back even harder against Dr. Omalu's research, scoffing when it was presented at a 2007 NFL health and safety conference. 

"This was not something I made up," Dr. Julian Bailes, who presented Omalu's work because he was not invited to the conference, said. "This was showing what the findings were."

The league later offered a pamphlet to players in 2007, indicating they would be fine long-term if concussions were treated properly. 

Dr. Casson, who declined to speak for the documentary, would stick as perhaps the most prominent opposing figure in the documentary. He appeared on HBO's Real Sports and became known as Dr. No for denying any possibility of long-term damage playing football could have on the brain.

DETROIT -  JANUARY 4:  Dr. Ira Casson, former Co-Chairman of the NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, speaks as a witness at a U.S. House Judiciary field hearing January 4, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. The hearing was designed to consider recent steps
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Although the MTBI and Casson invited Dr. Ann McKee, the head of Boston University's CTE research, to league offices two years later, things wouldn't go much better. Dr. McKee spoke of being interrupted throughout her attempted presentation, with Dr. Casson being the loudest voice of opposition. The committee refuted her claims on grounds that she could not figure out causation, nor prevalence of CTE.

Dr. McKee also claimed that there was a level of sexism in the room.

"Sexism is a big part of my life, and getting in that room with a bunch of males who thought that they knew all the answers, more sexism," Dr. McKee said. "It was like, 'Oh, the girl talked. Now we can get back to some serious business.'"

Those claims were denied, but Dr. Casson comes off as a villainous figure. Whether he was a man too prideful to admit he was wrong, a stooge planted by the NFL to parrot whatever the league said or merely incompetent at his profession, he stands forever as the face of the MTBI's denial against mounting evidence. 

The Media Didn't Do Much to Help Matters

That meeting with Dr. McKee came just months after she and Nowinski, who spearheaded the efforts to get brains to BU, presented their findings on the most public of stages: at the Super Bowl. Dr. McKee, Nowinski and Lisa McHale took the trip to Tampa, Fla., the site of the Super Bowl, and held a press conference where they laid out CTE data for all to see.

There were three different brains presented, all with CTE, and not all in the same area. McHale went public with her story, sobbing openly as she recounted the devolution of her husband. It was, in theory, the perfect pulpit to enact change and create media attention.

One problem: No one showed up. 

Held a short walk away from where the NFL was holding its pre-Super Bowl festivities, neither the league office nor the media made a dent in the conference room where the presser was held. Nowinski estimated that out of the hundreds of media members who were in Tampa, maybe two dozen total showed up.  

Keep that in mind the next time a media member takes the NFL to task. Much like we were in MLB's steroids scandal, everyone holds some level of complicity in this situation. 

Will League of Denial Help Bring Down the NFL?

In a word: No. For those who came into Tuesday night looking for a graphic, scathing takedown of the NFL that would instantly create a ripple that would bring down the sport, you will probably be dissapointed.

As a piece of filmmaking, the documentary was profound. It's a piece of work on par with the best of ESPN's 30 for 30 series or anything HBO has done in the past. For fans who came into the film with a relative ignorance of what concussions were, how they affect the human body and the NFL's role in sweeping them under the rug, the revelations presented here could be perception-altering.

Frontline presented a brilliant piece of journalism, done in such a way to both educate and illuminate facts that folks ignore every Sunday.

What we didn't find, though, was a proverbial smoking gun. 

Dr. Ira Casson is as close to an individual villain in the film, but what we get from him is a sense of denial. There was no revelation that he, Elliott Pellman and Paul Tagliabue met in clandestine areas and planned an all-out character attack designed to keep the cash flow coming in. Their treatment of Dr. Omalu and Dr. McKee was unquestionably off-putting, but in a way that gives plausible claims of ignorance rather than malicious hiding of evidence in an effort to slowly, but surely kill players.

Much of what was presented in League of Denial was already publicly known information. Boston University's findings have been covered in the media for years. It's damning evidence, for sure, but the NFL will still kick off this coming Sunday and for many more to come.

The real long-term effect of this documentary and all concussion research won't be known for years, when parents begin pulling their children out of the sport, when researchers have a greater body of evidence to present to the world.  

League of Denial was a brilliant two-hour film, and is a must-watch for anyone with a modicum of interest in the sport. But the NFL and the sport's day of reckoning is still far down the road. 

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