Updated Tue, Feb 4, 2014 12:48 pm
The National Football League, a multibillion-dollar commercial juggernaut, presides over America’s indisputable national pastime. But the NFL is under assault: thousands of former players and a host of scientists have claimed 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?
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 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.
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, 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with scientists, doctors and former players, including some of the NFL’s all-time greats, as well as previously unpublished medical records, NFL memorandums and e-mails.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.”
The first hour of League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis chronicles 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.
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. 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.”
The league recently settled a lawsuit by 4,200 former players who claimed football led to brain damage—avoiding both any admission of guilt, and the scrutiny of a public trial. But questions about the link between football and brain damage (and what the NFL knew, when) aren’t going away any time soon—and may threaten the very future of the game.