The cracks ran the length of Mike Webster’s feet, but that was the least of his problems. For years he had dealt with the ramifications that come from 16 years playing one of the toughest positions on one of the toughest teams in the NFL. Yet, despite a Hall of Fame career and an eternal place in the heart of Pittsburgh, Webster’s legacy may have been made on a cold, hard slab.
In death, Mike Webster may have done more to advance the game of football than anyone in the game’s history. He opened our eyes to the dangers of football and the brutal nature of the violence in the NFL. It was a central part of “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” a PBS documentary by Frontline based on the findings of brothers Steve Fainuru and Mark Fainuru-Wada.
That documentary aired on Tuesday night in conjunction with the release of the Fainurus’ book, and the potential ramifications for the NFL are severe.
“League of Denial” paints a picture of a league that wasn’t just complacent in researching the correlation between football and brain trauma, but one that actively sought to impede the progress of serious scientific studies of the issue, if not entirely contorting the truth regarding the issue altogether.
The NFL has already faced the wrath of the class-action lawsuit that it recently settled with former players to the tune of $765 million, so, in a way, the damage has already been done. However, the NFL still refused to admit the link between football and brain trauma.
But, “League of Denial” doesn’t just cast the league as an entity that was simply ignorant. It casts the NFL as a manipulative, power-hungry corporation desperate to hide the truth from its players and its fans.
The comparisons to “Big Tobacco” say it all.
The NFL attacked findings that indicated football could lead to brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or (CTE). Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who examined Mike Webster’s brain upon his passing and discovered massive buildups of tau protein nearly unheard of in a man of his age, wrote a paper about the potential connection between football and CTE that the NFL demanded be retracted.
The documentary and the book also detail shadowy tactics by the NFL and highlight instances where the NFL formed hollow committees essentially designed to create corroborating evidence that distanced football from any relationship with traumatic brain injury.
Those committees conducted research that fueled the NFL’s generally dismissive relationship with doctors on the other side of the issue such as Omalu and former Pittsburgh Steelers team neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes. It was the committee’s “findings” that shaped the NFL’s stance and provoked the Big Tobacco comparisons.
In 1994, when the issue was first starting to be seriously explored, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue took a hard line stance against the issue by calling it an instance of “pack journalism.” Those sentiments were echoed when Dr. Elliot Pellman, a former New York Jets team doctor who actually specialized as a rheumatologist and was noted for downplaying the severity of concussions, was named the head of the MTBI committee.
It was hardly an impartial figurehead to an organization that was supposed to be taking a deep look into the study of brain trauma as it pertained to football. Even when Pellman was followed by Dr. Ira Casson, a doctor with considerably more experience in head injuries, the NFL continued to staunchly deny any correlation.
Casson was noted for once calling himself a “man of science” in a press conference, and he conveniently hid behind the lack of all-encompassing research, despite the fact that the NFL had done nothing to publically further the research itself.
But it was more than just public dismissiveness that fueled “League of Denial”.
The NFL was also ostracizing anyone who stood in their way. Dr. Bennet Omalu would eventually leave Pittsburgh and take a medical examiner’s position in California, distancing himself from the NFL and the backlash his research created. He was the subject of chronic attempts at character assassination by the league throughout his research.
Even during a regime change that saw Paul Tagliabue seceded by Roger Goodell, the NFL was so hellbent on “protecting the shield” that they continued ignoring mounting evidence that was now being performed by doctors like Ann McKee, another noted neuropathologist who had studied the brain of Thomas McHale, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard who died of an overdose in 2008 and had volunteered his brain for science.
Then, in 2009, New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz was leaked an internal study by a high-ranking NFL official that showed a large number of former players involved in an NFL survey HAD been diagnosed by their physicians with early onset dementia. Finally, the NFL, unwillingly, had been forced into accepting the fact that football, in its current machination, was dangerous and could lead to serious brain injury.
Not long after, Congress got involved.
When the Congressional Subcommittee directed its wrath on the NFL, it was as devastating a blow to the league’s position as anything. Congresswoman Linda Sanchez made the public comparison to Big Tobacco, and in an instant the NFL began backtracking.
They ousted Dr. Ira Casson, they changed rules to improve player safety, they started a new committee and they donated $1 million to Boston University and Dr. Ann McKee, naming BU their preferred brain bank.
Not long after, the NFL half-halfheartedly admits to Alan Schwarz that there are long-term correlations between football and traumatic brain injury. And that’s where we begin seeing a new culture emerging in the NFL.
However, what “League of Denial” lays out for us is a long history of the NFL actively suppressing any attempts to investigate the relationship between football and brain trauma. And in the decades that the NFL played ignorant, there were potentially hundreds of players whose injuries could have potentially been eliminated or significantly reduced.
The implications of the findings of “League of Denial” won’t necessarily have an immediate influence over the NFL. It’s still a sport that we all love watching and the television ratings seem to indicate that the NFL is as popular as ever.
However, we’re all coming to grips with the fact that football is a dangerous sport and in instances where it’s our children playing football and not some strangers on the TV, reality begins to sink in.
Will parents want to have their children playing football?
This is one question that obviously lingers in the wake of “League of Denial”, and with the Fainurus’ book even more all-encompassing, the risks that we can now associate with playing football are significant. And the long-term ramifications for the NFL is that, despite its entertainment value, it’s reasonable to wonder if the NFL, in its current machination, will still exist in 15, 30 or even 50 years. How many will be willing to risk their long-term health to play football?
The evidence certainly supports the correlation between brain trauma and football, but the sample size is still admittedly small and the fact remains that not everybody who hits their head winds up with the same pattern of destructive behavior as a Mike Webster, a Tom McHale, a Dave Duerson or a Junior Seau. However, “League of Denial” certainly amplifies the already growing concern.
Yet, the NFL (after once admitting the link between the two to Schwarz in 2009) still hides behind the guise of “science” and claims the evidence of a link between brain trauma and football is unclear. Twenty years after forming their first committee to look into the correlation, the NFL is still the “League of Denial.”