The two-hour League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis really puts the BS in PBS.
By opening with Faces of Death–style morgue photos of Steelers great Mike Webster, and relying on the tearful testimony of widows and children of deceased NFL players, Frontline’s ostensibly scientific documentary telegraphs that it aims for the heart rather than the head.
The conspiracy theory masquerading as a documentary posits that the NFL suppressed and denied evidence that football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative condition found in the brains of Webster, Dave Duerson, and other deceased players. Yet, the best scientists studying the issue, as evidenced by the consensus statement from last year’s International Conference on Concussion in Sport, also deny that science has established a link between football and CTE.
Are they part of the NFL’s conspiracy, too?
Boston University neurologist Robert Stern tells us that playing football is “the equivalent of driving a car 35 miles an hour into a brick wall — a thousand or 1,500 times a year.” Only it’s not. More than 100 Americans die every day from car accidents. Nobody in the 94-year history of the NFL has died from a collision — or moves at 35 mph or administers hits as unyielding as a brick wall. The juxtaposition is demagoguery, not science.
Frontline favorably quotes Representative Linda Sánchez (D., Calif.), who peddles a more familiar brand of demagoguery, comparing football to smoking. “It sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-’90s when they kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s no link between smoking and damage to your health,’” Sánchez scolded NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 2009.
But the Centers for Disease Control estimates that tobacco claimed 5 million lives last year. Football hits? Two players, both competing in non-professional adult leagues, died from hits — one from a hit to the heart, the other to the head. Collisions killed none of the nearly 4 million kids playing football last season. Kids died from lightning and from obesity weighing down enlarged hearts on football fields in 2012. But not one died from actual football play.
Moreover, the NFL-is-the-new-Big-Tobacco meme fails. By the 1990s science had the benefit of several decades to digest the British Doctors Study, which scientifically established the link between smoking and cancer. No randomized study yet claims football causes CTE.
The most over-the-top assertion comes from Boston University brain researcher Ann McKee. “I think it’s going to be a shockingly high percentage,” McKee speculates on the prevalence of CTE in football players. “I’m really wondering where this stops. I’m really wondering on some level if every football player doesn’t have this.”
Leaving aside the reality that CTE researchers, including McKee, have looked at CTE-free brains from football players, the BU scientist’s ghoulish fantasy runs up against skepticism from the wider community of neuroscientists.
An article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in April, for instance, points out that “the speculation that repeated concussion or subconcussive impacts cause CTE remains unproven.” One recent scholarly article questioned why the BU group includes the presence of a condition found in 97 percent of normal old people as an indicator for CTE, while many others point out the “selection bias” that results from McKee’s and her BU group’s targeting brains for autopsy that family members donated because they suspected their loved ones had suffered from brain damage. McKee zealously looks for CTE, and the methods she employs help her to find it.
Couldn’t League of Denial have at least acknowledged the existence of the wealth of scholarship critical of its overall thesis?
Despite their best efforts to portray the football-equals-CTE theorists as victims, the documentarians unwittingly show them as whiners. The NFL oppresses McKee . . . by inviting her to speak at their headquarters. Alas, “they kept interrupting,” she says. And later the sports behemoth awarded her supposedly persecuted BU group a million-dollar grant and encouraged brain bequests from former players to her group rather than to others studying CTE.
League of Denial depicts the journal Neurosurgery as the NFL’s academic arm and then notes that the BU group’s Robert Cantu, a League of Denial talking head who wants to ban football for kids under 14, edited the journal’s section running the football-favorable studies that the documentary takes issue with. This alleged tool of the NFL also published League of Denial talking head Bennet Omalu’s initial CTE studies, which Frontline then accuses the NFL of trying to suppress.
Like most conspiracy theories, League of Denial doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated and projects its own intellectual intolerance onto its bogeyman, the NFL. Not until more than an hour has passed does the program allow a critic to speak.
New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz says of the NFL in the documentary, “They refused to listen to people who didn’t share their opinions.” Ditto for League of Denial.
— Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.