Revisiting the ‘League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis’

As football season begins at the high school, collegiate and national levels, we’re reminded of the risks and violence associated with this rough contact sport. In the past few weeks, we’ve heard all about Ray Rice (who punched his finance/wife, Janay, in an elevator) and Adrian Peterson (who’s charged with child abuse).

“Football is a pantomime of war, down to the pseudo-military tacticsm,” writes Grantland editor Louisa Thomas. “But it is not a pantomime of violence. It is actual violence.”

A violence and culture that we cherish every Sunday — despite its enormous costs. Last year, Frontline released its two-hour documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada wrote League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” a 416-page book which examines the concussion crisis in contact sports.

The documentary — directed by Michael Kirk and written by Kirk, Steve Fainaru, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Mike Wiser — centers on “Iron Mike” Webster, the Hall of Fame center from the Pittsburg Steelers. Webster died when he was 50 years old, showing signs of dementia, insomnia and depression.

i_websterphoto_i“I’d come outside sometimes and just see him sitting in the truck and it’d be freezing and he’d be sitting and looking miserable,” said Webster’s son Colin. “[He'd say,] ‘The worst thing is that I’m actually getting to the point where sometimes if I don’t take my medicine, I’m cold and I don’t even realize I could fix it by just putting a jacket on.’”

Webster’s lawyer Bob Fitzsimmons said Webster had a cognitive disorder; Webster couldn’t finish a thought.

In 2000, the NFL Retirement Board admitted that Webster’s head injuries were caused by his 17-year football career and awarded him month disability checks until his death two years later. But the danger of football isn’t isolated to this one incident.

Kirk uses Webster’s story to exemplify the brutal and widespread nature of this contact sport.

“The damage was occurring every week,” said Leigh Steinberg, a sports agent who represented more than 150 athletes including Thurman Thomas, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Bruce Smith, Kordell Stewart, Jeff George, Ricky Williams, Steve Bartkowski, Ben Roethlisberger and Howie Long. “It was happening to pros, but it was happening in college. It was happening in high school. It was happening to every player in every collision sport. So not only was it an issue for my clients, but it was a huge societal issue.”

In fact, this month’s TIME cover story features the tragic death of Chad Stover, a 16-year-old defensive back for the Tipton Cardinals. Stover died from a concussion after two weeks in the hospital.

“The thing you want your kids to do most of all is to succeed in life and be the most that they can be and if there’s anything that can infringe on that, I don’t want my kids doing,” says Dr. Ann McKee, one of the lead researchers of Chronic  Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease commonly found in football players.

“I’m really wondering where it stops — if on some level, every football player doesn’t have this,” says McKee.

 Frontline’s “The League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” was released on PBS on October 8, 2014. 

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