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FRONTLINE: League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis

Airs Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Football helmet graphic. What did the NFL know about the connection between football and traumatic brain injuries — and when did they know it? FRONTLINE and ESPN investigate in this two-part program.

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?

Courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS

During PBS’ FRONTLINE “League Of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis” session at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles, Calif. on Tues., August 6, 2013, ESPN’s Dwayne Bray, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, NFL Hall-of-Famer Harry Carson and filmmaker Michael Kirk discuss the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries, including the devastating consequences for some of football's all-time greats.

CONCUSSION WATCH

FRONTLINE tracks and analyzes officially reported head injuries in the NFL.

ARTICLES

NFL Reaches $765 Million Settlement In Concussion Lawsuit by Jason M. Breslow

A Note from FRONTLINE: ESPN and “League of Denial”

Questions Over NFL Doctor Cloud League’s Concussion Case by Steve Fainaru and John Barr

Legal Battle Over NFL Brain Injuries Ordered Into Mediation by Jason M. Breslow

NFL Helmet Manufacturer Warned On Concussion Risk by Sabrina Shankman

In Brawl For Seau Brain, a Proxy War Over Concussion Science by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada

At Start of NFL Concussion Case, a Focus On Workplace Safety by Jason M. Breslow

NFL Concussion Litigation Faces An Early Courtroom Test by Jason M. Breslow

Concussion Researchers Consulted With NFL Players’ Lawyers by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada

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.

This program originally aired on Oct. 8, 2013 on FRONTLINE. Past episodes of FRONTLINE are available for online viewing. FRONTLINE is on Facebook, and follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter.

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

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 covered up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players. What did the NFL know, and when did they know it? In a special two-part investigation,

Video

ESPN Outside The Lines: Doctor's Orders

Above: Interviews and previously unpublished documents raise new questions about how Dr. Elliot Pellman -- a Long Island rheumatologist with no previous expertise in brain research -- came to wield so much authority over the NFL's concussion program.

Video

ESPN Outside The Lines: New NFL CTE Cases

Above: Boston University researchers have discovered 27 more cases of chronic brain damage in deceased football players, including 15 NFL players, which more than doubles the number of documented cases connecting football to long-term brain disease.

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