Frontline: League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis
Airs Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV
Originally published August 16, 2013 at 4:23 p.m., updated January 27, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.
The National Football League, a multibillion-dollar commercial juggernaut, presides over America’s indisputable national pastime. But the NFL is under assault as thousands of former players and a host of scientists claim the league has tried to cover up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players. What did the NFL know, and when did it know it? What’s the truth about the risks to players? What can be done?
FRONTLINE tracks and analyzes officially reported head injuries in the NFL.
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Legal Battle Over NFL Brain Injuries Ordered Into Mediation by Jason M. Breslow
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NFL Concussion Litigation Faces An Early Courtroom Test by Jason M. Breslow
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With Eye on Concussions, NFL Adopts New Rule on Helmet Hits by Jason M. Breslow
NFL Concussions: The 2012-13 Season In Review by Jason M. Breslow
Obama’s Concerns Focus Super Bowl Talk On Player Safety by Jason M. Breslow
Family of Junior Seau Files Wrongful Death Suit Against NFL by Jason M. Breslow
New Study Finds Brain Damage in Living Ex-NFL Players by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada
Junior Seau Suffered Chronic Brain Damage, NIH Study Finds by Jason M. Breslow
Concussion Watch: Wild Card Weekend Roundup by Jason M. Breslow
Concussion Watch: Week 17 Roundup by Jason M. Breslow
Concussion Watch: Week 16 Roundup by Jason M. Breslow
Concussion Watch: Week 15 Roundup by Jason M. Breslow
NFL’s Progress On Concussions Blurred By Inconsistencies by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada
Inside the Numbers: Counting Concussions in the NFL by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada
Concussion Watch: Week 14 Roundup by Jason M. Breslow
Concussion Watch: Week 13 Roundup by Jason M. Breslow
Researchers Discover 28 New Cases of Brain Damage in Deceased Football Players by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada
NFL Board Paid $2M to Players While League Denied Football-Concussion Link by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada
In a special two-hour investigation, "League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis," FRONTLINE and prize-winning journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru of ESPN to reveal the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries drawn from their forthcoming book, "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth" (Crown Archetype, October 2013).
"League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis" investigates how, for years, the league worked to refute scientific evidence that the violent collisions at the heart of the game are linked to an alarming incidence of early-onset dementia, catastrophic brain damage and other devastating consequences, even death.
The investigation draws on more than 200 interviews with scientists, doctors and former players, including some of the NFL’s all-time greats, as well as previously unpublished medical records, NFL memorandums and e-mails.
“We all know football is violent and dangerous; that’s not a mystery,” says Steve Fainaru. “But if it’s shown, or if it’s suggested, that players can come away severely and prematurely brain-damaged as a result of their careers, that's going to change the way people look at football completely.”
“In every single play, particularly at the line of scrimmage, guys are running into each other head to head, and that’s just the nature of the sport,” says Mark Fainaru-Wada. “And the science is emerging more and more that that’s the very nature of what this issue is about and why the players are going to develop this problem.”
In hour one of "League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis," Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada chronicle the discovery of a devastating neurological disease in the brain of the Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which was likely incurred during Webster’s 17-year NFL career.
As FRONTLINE reports, the response from the NFL to Webster’s diagnosis was swift. The league demanded a retraction of the scientific paper explaining the diagnosis, insisted there was no evidence linking football to chronic brain disease, and used its own heavily funded research arm to try to kill the findings and discredit the researchers behind them.
“For the most part, people didn’t want to believe it’s true,” a former team physician for the Steelers tells FRONTLINE. “They didn’t want to admit to themselves or anybody else that our beloved sport, probably our most popular sport, could end up with brain damage.”
The discovery of CTE in Mike Webster was only the beginning. In hour two, "League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis" investigates how the NFL responded to the growing body of scientific evidence that football was putting the brains of its players at risk.
But professional, adult athletes aren’t the only ones at risk. As FRONTLINE reports, scientists are finding evidence of CTE in high school athletes, too.
“One of the biggest problems we had is that as long as the NFL dismissed this and said it’s not a big deal, … that meant parents were signing up their kids to go play football believing that there was no risk of problem,” one researcher tells FRONTLINE. “And you know that wasn’t fair to those kids or those parents, but especially those kids.”
Now the league faces another challenge: More than 4,200 former players have filed lawsuits claiming that their playing football led to brain damage. As "League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis" shows, it’s a confluence of events for the NFL that may threaten the future of the game.
“If we believe that the violence that is inherent in football is setting off a sort of cascading neurological effect in your brain that may leave you prematurely brain-damaged, completely change you as a human being and even kill you, how many people are going to want to play it?” asks Steve Fainaru.