NFL’s Big Tobacco Moment Exposed in ‘League of Denial’
I love football. I’ve loved it since I was a child, when I would make popcorn for me and my father as we got ready to watch Monday Night Football, our version of “must watch television.”
This August, though, my father was bemoaning that the game was going to be ruined. The Chicago Tribune had just reported that the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 retired players who have accused the league of concealing a link between traumatic brain injury and professional football.
Chicago is a big sports town, and the suit was front-page news. The 1986 Chicago Bears won Superbowl XX with its hard-hitting defense. Some of those same players were plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The “Monsters of the Midway” are in misery.
Quarterback Jim McMahon was part of the suit. He led ‘Da Bears’ to the Superbowl, but now he wishes that he would’ve played baseball instead. The 53 year old suffers from dementia. “When my friends call and leave me a message . . . I'll read it and delete it before I respond and then I forget who called and left me a message,” he told WFLD-TV, a Chicago television station.
Dave Duerson played alongside McMahon. Duerson’s story is particularly tragic. The Pro Bowl safety shot himself in the chest with a .38 Special in February 2011. In the months leading up to his suicide, he had complained of headaches, blurred vision and a deteriorating memory. In his final note to his family, he wrote: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
The NFL’s “brain bank” is at Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The league does not run the center but has donated some money in the past. The center has the largest collection of former NFL players’ brains. The Center found that Duerson’s brain had developed the same trauma-induced disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), found in dozens of other deceased players.
“It’s tragic that Dave Duerson took his own life, but it’s very meaningful that he recognized the symptoms of the disorder—it validates this condition,” Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who examined Duerson’s brain, told The New York Times.
McKee is a featured scientist in the riveting new documentary on PBS’s Frontline, “League of Denial.” The film traces what the league knew about brain trauma caused by concussions and hard hits, when the league knew it, and to what extent it sought to tamp down the emerging science.
The amazing film is based on a book of the same name by reporters Steve Fairanu and Mark Fairanu-Wada. The two top-notch reporters are football fans themselves. The Pulitzer-prize winning Steve Fairanu is a season-ticket owner for the San Francisco 49ers.
In 2009, Congress hauled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to testify. Lawmakers compared the NFL to big tobacco for its record of denial and never-ending search for more science and research that may justify its claims.
And while NFL has made changes to improve the health of its current and retired players since being scrutinized by Congress, there’s much more that the league could do. (How about not extending the season, or increasing the number of teams in the playoffs, as Goodell suggested Wednesday?)
If you love football like I do, it’s a tough documentary to watch. But as fans we do owe it to ourselves to know what’s going on. And we owe it to young people playing the sport. Parents need to know about the potential risks to their kids’ brains.
Many people, including my father, think hard hits are simply part of the game. It’s a
violent, brutal sport, and that’s something many of us enjoy. Can this be changed? I don’t know. But after watching this, it’ll be hard to enjoy hearing the helmets crash on Thursday night when the Bears take on the Giants.
This video is from PBS Frontline, published Oct. 8, 2013.
If you liked this story by Elizabeth DiNovella, the Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine, check out her story "TransCanada Gets Pranked."
Follow Elizabeth DiNovella @lizdinovella on Twitter
- Give a Gift
- About Us
- Civil Liberties
CURRENT ISSUE: December 2013 / January 2014
Rick Bass | Why I’m left with no choice but to put my body on the line.
When Government Was Neighborly
Wendell Berry | Saluting a New Deal program that helped Kentucky farmers.
The Bravest Woman I Know
Kathy Kelly | How an eighty-two-year-old librarian braved Baghdad.
How to Build a New World
Naomi Klein | Why I was wrong in The Shock Doctrine—and what we must do now.