Almost everyone associated with the National Football League came away looking bad after last night's Frontline investigation documenting the NFL's attempted cover-up of the long-term effects of concussions. Almost everyone.
The documentary League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis — based on the just-released book by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru — didn't break any massive new stories. But it did effectively and succinctly explain the history of the concussion problem and the NFL's Big Tobacco-like role in attempting to deny medical science and mislead the public. "For anyone who hasn't intently followed the concussion situation and the NFL's handling of it," Yahoo Sports's Frank Schwab writes, "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."
Even for those who have followed the story, the documentary did change how we viewed certain characters. So, in the classic post-game sportswriting conceit, we broke down the documentary into its Winners and Losers.
Loser: Paul Tagliabue
Nobody fared worse in the film than former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was outright flippant and dismissive that football had anything to worry about head injuries, blaming it on a form of media hysteria. "Concussions, I think, is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly," he said in the documentary. "The problem is it's a journalist issue." Those egregious quotes did not go over well, as Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tweeted:
With "pack journalism claim,''Paul Tagliabue comes across as putting his head so far into the sand he all but disappears. #LeagueofDenial— Don Banks (@DonBanks) October 9, 2013
In 1994, Tagliabue finally caved to pressure and created the Mild Tramautic Brain Injury Committee, which, as its name implies, was filled with doctors trying to show how mild head injuries actually were. Most egregiously, he appointed New York Jets team doctor Elliot Pellman to lead the committee, even though Pellman was a rheumatologist and had no medical brain expertise. Tagliabue later hired Pellman as his personal doctor, a sign that this was more of a friendly arrangement than a rigorous medical investigation. In all, Tagliabue appeared to be wholly opposed to even considering any of the studies documenting long-term head problems.
(Photo: AP/M. Spencer Green)
Winner: Roger Goodell
Perhaps just in contrast to Tagliabue, the current NFL commissioner comes off well in the documentary, the first leader to address the problem head-on. "I didn't expect NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to come out looking so good," The New Republic writes.
After the NFL's embarrassing appearance in Congress about head trauma, Goodell made a series of moves accepting the head injury dangers and working to limit the risk. He fired the oppositional doctors on the MTBI Committee and hired new brain experts to lead it. He made a $1 million donation to the Boston University research center looking into many former NFL player's diseased brains. And he directed NFL spokesman Greg Aiello to finally admit that "it's clear" football head injuries are linked to brain damage.
These moves were, of course, for improving PR. Even so, they implicitly accepted the general consensus that football is dangerous. The days of outright denial under Tagliabue were gone, and Goodell deserves credit for that.
(Photo: Screenshot from League of Denial)
Loser: Denying (and conflicted) football fans
The NFL wasn't the only group denying it; American football fans denied these problems for a long time, too. The New York Daily News writes that League of Denial should have been called "Nation of Denial," as all fans bought into and loved the sport's hard hits. After watching, it's hard not to feel conflicted about the sport, particularly after hearing about Pittsburgh Steelers lineman "Iron Mike" Webster, whose football-caused head injuries led to an early death. The documentary showed parts of his autopsy and it wasn't pretty for fans to see: cracked feet, disfigured legs, and a brain filled with tangled tau protein, the tell-tale signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative condition most associated with damaged football players.
And as a fan, it's hard not to feel a little responsible for that. "People like the violence," Pittsburgh sports reporter Stan Stavran says in the film. "You watch a pro football game, and naturally the biggest cheers are for touchdowns. But the second biggest cheers are for a nasty hit." Should we feel guilty about that?
Winner: Malcolm Gladwell
The bestselling New Yorker writer and admitted contrarian elicited plenty of eye-rolls when he compared football to dogfighting back in 2009, after talking to many of the same sources quoted in the League of Denial work. He continued to hammer against football in early 2013 by arguing that college version should be disbanded, and predicted that football will soon be "ghettoized" as well-off families forbid their kids from playing the sport.
Though he wasn't mentioned in the documentary, Gladwell's views were somewhat validated. "The human body was not created or built to play football," former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson says in the film. "I think the NFL has given everybody 765 million reasons why you don't want to play football," referring to the NFL's $765 million settlement for a head injury lawsuit brought on by 4,500 former players. Gladwell's new book hasn't been getting great reviews, but he can take solace knowing that his controversial anti-football stance seems a lot more plausible after last night's showing.
ESPN and NFL executives really need to learn about the Streisand Effect. League of Denial might not have received as much coverage if not for the fact that ESPN, which was originally involved in the documentary's production, dropped its cooperative agreement with Frontline. The New York Times reported that the decision was at least partly caused by NFL pressure. That controversy likely increased interest in the film, the Times explains, and "what those viewers will see is decidedly unflattering to the league, though dismayingly predictable."
Winner: ESPN reporters
While ESPN executives don't look great, the journalists at the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" certainly did. Almost all of the key stories came from ESPN reporters: the Fainaru brothers wrote the book; ESPN reporter Peter Keating provided great color commentary; and a profile on the main CTE-diagnosing doctor originally appeared on ESPN-owned site Grantland. Count this as a win for investigative journalism, even at the risk of embarrassing an important corporate partner.
If you missed the broadcast, the entire League of Denial documentary is available online at PBS.