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'League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis'

October 9, 2013 - Ben Klein

The PBS Frontline special on how the NFL dealt with concussions aired Tuesday night. You can watch it here.

USA Today has a summary on the documentary here that describes the doctor who diagnosed former Steeler center Mike Webster with the brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

From ESPN:

"Mike Webster played with the Steelers (1974-1988) and Kansas City Chiefs (1989-1990), winning four Super Bowls with Pittsburgh in his Hall of Fame career. But the physical toll was high for the offensive lineman. "For Mike Webster, the head hits just kept on coming for 17 years," says Frontline narrator Will Lyman.

The documentary details Webster's descent into confusion, depression and dementia, the end of his marriage, his living out of a pickup truck and his inability to sleep. His former wife, Pam, tells how he took a knife and slashed all his football pictures.

Webster died on Sept. 24, 2002.

"The news that day would start a chain of events that would threaten to forever change the way America sees the game of football,' the narrator says.

Frontline shows a photo of Webster's body on a table at the coroner's office in Pittsburgh . Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who did the autopsy, said death was due to heart disease, but he also wanted to examine Webster's brain.

Omalu said his examination found evidence of CTE, a degenerative condition that previously been associated with boxers. Omalu was the first to report a case in an NFL player and in 2005 he published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery.

In response, the then-chairman and other members of the NFL's former Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee wrote a letter to the journal saying Omalu's findings were based on a "complete misunderstanding of the relevant medical literature" and that there was "inadequate clinical evidence that the subject had a chronic neurological condition."

"They insinuated I was not practicing medicine. I was practicing voodoo … voodoo," the Nigerian-born Omalu tells Frontline.

Omalu added: "CTE has dragged me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can't go against the NFL. They'll squash you."

From the New York Times:

Collisions of Football Helmets and Money 'League of Denial' Looks at N.F.L. and Concussions

"Much of this has already been reported, with Alan Schwarz of The New York Times often leading the way, but the program will certainly be eye-opening for anyone — especially parents with children of Pop Warner league age — who hasn’t followed the subject closely or seen “The United States of Football,” a documentary released in August.

Eye-opening, but at the same time oddly unsurprising. The N.F.L. is a huge entertainment industry (one with gigantic contracts with ESPN). Tobacco and other big businesses have already shown that when health concerns threaten a business model, a head-in-the-sand approach is often the first line of defense."

Eye-opening, yes, but will it matter?


"Keep in mind that since 2008, the NFL already has survived:

More than 30 front-page stories in the New York Times investigating the link between football and concussions; Prime-time investigations into concussions on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and CNN; Congressional hearings; The suicide of several ex-players who turned out to have CTE–including Junior Seau, a marketable star; and A major lawsuit that could’ve destroyed it. But didn’t.

It’s odd to think that a documentary shown by FRONTLINE — which draws less than 3 million viewers for a new film, or about one-quarter of the audience of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” — is somehow going to turn the tide. No matter how well-made and compelling the film turned out to be.

“It’s nearly impossible to shake an addiction,” tweeted Paul Anderson, the lawyer who runs and has led a crusade to increase awareness of brain injuries. “Even if it’s killing people.”"


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