League of Denial

Just had a chance to watch the Frontline documentary that aired last night.

A few comments:

1) it’s not news at this point that the NFL obstructed efforts to understand the possible connection between playing football and long-term brain trauma. But to see it laid out so clearly, the record is really shameful. And it makes clear again that the key part of the settlement in August wasn’t the money paid out. It was allowing the NFL to deny any liability for what had happened to players. The documentary included a clip Commissioner Goodell gave to a radio station shortly after the settlement. One provision of the settlement he repeated, “there was no recognition that anything was caused by football.”

2) The two most dogged researchers of CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, have been Bennet Omalu and Ann Mckee. Omalu did the autopsy on Mike Webster in 2002 that became the first diagnosed case of CTE in football. Omalu says his work was described as “voodoo” and lamented every having met Webster because  one point, he said ” the NFL will squash you.”

3) Omalu’s co-authored paper on Mike Webster’s brain, published in the journal Neurosurgery and identifying distinctive accumulations of tau proten in the brain, was the first concrete evidence of the long-term damage to the brain likely caused by playing football. This paper was published in 2005. Folks who insist that players knew “the risks” need to stop saying that, especially for players whose careers ended more than three years ago. As Harry Carson said during the documentary, everyone knows there are risks to knees, etc.

4) after years of attacking independent research suggesting the link the NFL was so afraid of, the league commissioned an internal study, which was leaked to Alan Schwarz, then of the New York Times, in 2009. That study found, among a very large number of retired NFL players, a degree of memory and other neurological issues far exceeding the population as a whole. For years, the NFL had dismissed research about CTE because studying the occasional donated brain cannot tell you how prevalent CTE or related problems might be in a population of thousands of current and former players.  But after Schwarz wrote about the study, which provided compelling evidence about the prevalence issue, the NFL dismissed it, saying its design was flawed.

5) concerns about the sample of brains that McKee and Omalu have examined are legitimate. It’s a small group, and as skeptics have noted, there is a prevalence among the population studied of steroid use and other issues. Still, McKee says she’s looked at 46 brains and 45 have CTE. Something serous is going on. And, of course, the fact that plenty of players seem to be OK doesn’t disprove the link either. There are people smoking two packs a day who live to be a 100. That doesn’t disprove the link between smoking and lung cancer.

But those 6-10 “mini-concussions” a game, as Carson described them – those times when lineman are butting heads – are the real danger. And as Steve Young put it, it’s those “nefarious” injuries, the ones you don’t even know you sustained that are so scary. Analogies between Big Tobacco and its attempts at obfuscation and the NFL have become commonplace. But there is also this further similarity – that like smoking, playing football might kill when “used as directed.” If it’s the repeated ordinary and unavoidable collisions that happen on every play that are so dangerous – as opposed to the spectacular feel speed collisions that make the highlight reels, how do you make the game safer? This is the question that Mark Fainaru-Wada asks at the end of the film.

6) one question I had was whether two people looking at a brain slide in search of CTE ould see something dramatically different? I don’t know. I wish the documentary had answered that, as well as whether CTE prevalence, or memory/neurology issues more generally, are more prevalent in football than in hockey, for example.

7) OK, this is really besides the point, but the documentary briefly recounts Goodell’s rise through the league office, from errand boy to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, to the top dog (complete with $30 million annual salary. (Not bad for the head of a “non-profit.”) Goodell got his start in the league when he wrote a letter asking for a job. A question – do you think the NFL would’ve responded to a random letter if Goodell’s father weren’t a former United States Senator?

8) about the string of league-connected doctors who denied the long term effects of football on brain integrity, as well as former Commissioner Tagliabue and other league officials,  it seems like someone should have rolled out the classic (and admittedly oft-used Upton Sinclair quote: Upton Sinclair – “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

9) for an especially comprehensive summary of the documentary, Chris Morran is worth checking out.

Over all, League of Denial was excellent. But it’s also clear that, despite the mounting evidence, we’re still in the early stages of understanding fully the causal connection between football and these sever neurological disorders. Having dodged a huge bullet in the August settlement, it seems like the NFL’s day of reckoning over these issues is still far in the future.


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