Professional and collegiate sports have been on twin tracks in terms of bad publicity, each besieged by former players who have sought legal remedies to what they see as abusive systems. “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” received an assist from ESPN in tackling the U.S.’ most powerful sport — though the network subsequently (and foolishly) withdrew from the collaborative investigation; while “Schooled: The Price of College Sports,” from Epix, expands author Taylor Branch’s indictment of the NCAA to forge its own lacerating documentary. Taken together, the two docs create an image that persuasively links big money and exploitation, not that such revelations will deter the sport’s devotees in either instance.
PBS’ “Frontline” teamed with ESPN to report on the NFL story, before Disney’s cable sports titan bowed out, citing as a reason a lack of editorial control. Yet as several media outlets reported, the decision merely fostered suspicion that ESPN was being cowed by concerns about offending its NFL TV partners, and perhaps bending to direct pressure from the league itself.
Whatever the motivation, it clearly backfired. ESPN’s action has surely brought additional heat, and hopefully exposure, to the project, which, like most “Frontline” docs, methodically builds a compelling case.
To wit: That the trauma of playing high-level football, often referred to as a “collision sport,” not merely a “contact” one, has serious health consequences, as testified to by a number of former players — or their widows. Moreover, the reporting indicates that the NFL took concerted steps to obscure those findings, from attempting to discredit researchers to naming a doctor with no history in neuroscience to head its committee looking into the matter.
How bad does “League of Denial” look for the NFL? Put it this way: Whenever you are compared with Big Tobacco in the 1960s, your PR department has every reason to be concerned.
In theory, the NFL did provide producers with an eye-popping ending: a $765-million settlement with 4,200 former players who claim to have suffered brain damage (the clinical term being chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) due to their playing careers.
As the reporting makes clear, though, the settlement alone doesn’t address unresolved questions about football’s harmful effects, and as former player Harry Carson notes, it shouldn’t ease the minds of parents who wonder whether it’s safe to let their kids play football at a full-contact level.
This being television, the story is largely related through a series of profiles, beginning with former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, whose behavior became troubled and erratic before his death at the age of 50. Similar accounts follow — from quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman’s concussions to Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide — as well as interviews with Webster’s doctor and a Boston U. expert in neurology, Ann McKee, who took on the NFL.
The NFL’s incentive to sweep information under the rug is simple. Like Watergate’s Deep Throat advised: Follow the money. “ ‘Monday Night Football’ marked a turning point in the game’s popularity — and its revenues,” the docu’s narration intones.
ESPN’s actions, too, can be illuminated by Deep Throat’s advice: As correspondent Steve Fainaru (who reported with his brother, Mark Fainaru-Wada, and Jim Gilmore) states, the network’s $120 million weekly payment to the league for “Monday Night Football” is equivalent to “the budget of a Harry Potter movie.” (College football dances to ESPN’s tune, scheduling-wise, for similar reasons.)
Indeed, the media’s tacit complicity represents another aspect of the story, here illustrated by footage of McKee’s half-empty press conference during Super Bowl weekend in 2009 to discuss CTEs. The message: that many sportswriters harbor little interest in covering anything more intellectually demanding than wins and losses, or Xs and Os.
Like “League of Denial,” “Schooled” hinges on a clear and compelling premise: While coaches and universities have watched collegiate sports blossom into a multibillion-dollar business flush with TV money, players are essentially treated as chattel, fettered by arcane rules and a system virtually designed to breed corruption.
Adapted from Branch’s 2011 article in the Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” the producers (who include former baseball manager Bobby Valentine) interview a number of past and recent collegians, among them UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who is at the forefront of a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation from the NCAA; and Sonny Vaccaro, the one-time athletic-shoe marketing guru who helped funnel money into coaches and universities’ pockets, before turning the cause of exposing amateurism as a charade into a crusade.
Of course, the NFL’s heavily muscled defenders aren’t limited to the suits in its corporate offices. Jim Otto, a standout center with the Oakland Raiders, is interviewed in “League of Denial,” and while acknowledging the toll the game took on his body, he dismisses the players’ lawsuit as after-the-fact whining. “I’m not out there crying about it,” he says.
Otto surely isn’t alone in that mind-set — and he will no doubt have plenty of company among fans prone to reject anything that might diminish or distract from their enjoyment of the game, which might be the most formidable arrow in the NFL’s or NCAA’s quivers, in the face of what Carson dubs an “existential” threat.
The impulse to circle the wagons and say, “Don’t mess with my pastimes,” is understandable, but in this instance, that old joke is true: When it comes to the NFL, “Denial” is not just a river in Egypt.