Frontline’s landmark ‘League of Denial’

A gripping story of decades of NFL coverup and the deadly consequences

We already know most of the information Frontline presents in its gripping “League of Denial” documentary on the NFL and concussions.

Or let me be more precise: Those of us who have followed this story have heard most of it. Most people haven’t followed it closely, and even those who have likely don’t know the details of just how this story unfolded. As news appears in dribs and drabs over years or decades, it’s usually impossible for readers or viewers to keep track of the narrative arc. When did I first hear about this story? What did the principals say about it back then? How has it developed over the years?

The value of this documentary is not in the news, but in the storytelling: the expert synthesis of decades of information, the drama of the narrative, combined with the power of the visual medium. The story is the thing, as the pioneering investigative publisher Sam McClure said, and as Audit Chief Muckraker Dean Starkman has reminded us.

This story involves billions of dollars, fanatical loyalties, denial, and life and death, and—let’s be frank: good and evil—and Frontline has told it about as well as it can be told. It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of journalism I’ve seen in a long time—a highly disturbing look at a corporate coverup and its direct human cost.

If that lead-in somehow doesn’t make the point: Stop what you’re doing and spend two hours to watch it:

There are a number of good guys and gals in this story, including the journalists who helped uncover it. But the doctors/scientists Bennet Omalu and Ann McKee are true heroes.

While it’s obvious that a film like this would get much of its power from simply telling the stories of the players whose lives were devastated by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Omalu’s and McKee’s stories push this into greatness.

Omalu’s story is particularly stirring. Nigerian born and trained, Omalu was the first to discover that a football player had CTE after being presented the body of former Pittsburgh Steeler legend Mike Webster. The NFL would go on to threaten and ostracize him for years, to the point where he said he wished he’d never heard of Webster: “You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you. I really, sincerely wished it didn’t cross my path of life, seriously,” he told Frontline. It’s appalling how he was treated.

And then there’s the NFL, which Frontline conclusively shows covered up the crisis for years. It hired an unqualified, NFL-loyal doctor to head up its committee and pooh-pooh the evidence for more than a decade. It attacked and belittled scientists like Omalu and McKee. Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, won’t admit that playing football is linked to brain damage, despite the fact that forty-five of the 46 brains of dead football players that have been studied have had CTE.

Goodell is shown to be particularly awful: a real villain, along with his hand-picked doctor Ira Casson. It will be a shame if Goodell survives long in his job after Frontline’s film. I’d like to know where the Department of Justice is on this scandal.

And then there are the corporate quislings at ESPN, whom Frontline doesn’t mention, but whom I will. “League of Denial” was an ESPN/Frontline partnership until five weeks ago when ESPN pulled out. The New York Times reported in the days after that disgrace that the NFL had pressured ESPN to back out of the partnership, quoting one investigative reporter there as saying “Disney folks got involved and shut us down.”

This is not to criticize ESPN’s journalists. Steve Fainaru, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Peter Keating have all done critically important work on this story and they are fantastic in Frontline’s film. It’s a crying shame that ESPN’s goons nixed its corporate participation, but at least they didn’t nix the film.

This shows very clearly why it’s so essential that we have nonprofit, public media like Frontline, PBS, and WGBH that don’t have billions of dollars riding on what they’re reporting on.

For now, share this with every football fan you know. Especially share it with every parent with a kid playing football. Ask yourself: Can you watch the game? Can you let your kid play it?

I’ve always been a huge Oklahoma football fan, but I’m not so sure my answer is still “yes.” Not until some major changes are made.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,