ESPN Folds to NFL, Frontline Airing "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" Anyway

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ESPN Caves to NFL, Frontline Airing "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" Anyway

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Trade News | August 29, 2013 | Comments ()


I love NFL football. I grew up in the eighties watching the 49ers, and what I grew to love was not just the action and the violence, but the superhuman nature of those players, these demi-god beasts of raw muscle and speed and size and agility that simply dwarfed the comprehension of a skinny little kid who liked to read. And the game topped itself by being a masterwork of strategy and nuance. The combination of power and strategy is exhilarating, like playing speed chess with titans for pieces.

I have loved many sports, though most have faded away by now in my regard, but football is the only one that I’ve ever watched as a game for its own sake. Sunday is for football. I don’t care that I’ve been out of my team’s market for five years, and have a one percent chance of watching them. I’d watch the Lions play the Cardinals in all three Sunday slots if that’s all there was to air.

And so the gradual revelations about just how terrible a toll the game takes has been painful. And I find myself considering moral questions as to the future of this game that is more blood sport than we were led to believe. Can one in good conscience watch the destruction of men if they are well paid for it? If a thousand times their number subject themselves to a lesser obliteration for free just for the chance?

“League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” will air on PBS October 8th during Frontline, a two hour documentary special. ESPN originally jointly produced the documentary with Frontline, but pulled out over the summer once the trailer was shown in public. ESPN insists that there was no pressure from the NFL, and that their decision was based on the “sensationalism” of the trailer which I’ve posted below. Uh huh. Right.

Watch “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Bananapanda

    HBO Sports has been covering this for YEARS - forcing the issue, interviewing players who are in old folks homes before 50, wives who are now caregivers. The path of destruction is too great.

    Having grown up a Giants fan, I can't believe Phil SImms can string together a sentence. That guy spent half his plays on his back. And don't get me started on a coked-up Lawrence Taylor...(the real LT).

    I prefer rugby - yes it's rough but play is centered on the ball, not the man, and padding is minimal so there's no delusions of coverage. Plus they're way better athletes - offence and defense not fat guys waddling on to the field for 30 seconds or playing 'special teams'. Bitch please.

  • breaking: the nfl has settled its concussion lawsuit. for 756 MILLION dollars.

    the money shot from the article: "the nfl has denied any wrongdoing and has insisted that safety has always been a top priority."

  • e jerry powell

    Translate: "We don't want this to go to trial, because that would mean there would be a discovery phase, and we don't have enough time or shredders to dispose all of that paperwork."

  • once upon a time, boxing was a huge sport. not any more.

    in the 1904 olympics there were seven weight classes - flyweights, bantams, featherweights, lightweights, welters, mids, and heavyweights. now, the WBC recognizes SEVENTEEN different weight classes, and there are three other governing bodies...why? because the more champs you have, the more money you can make. the money to be made became more important than the integrity of the sport itself.

    the other thing that killed boxing was that the public finally noticed the brutality of the sport - muhammad ali's sad, sad decline is just the most obvious example of long-term neurological damage due to repeated blows to the head. at some point, fans (of which i am one, sadly), found it hard to enjoy a sport that was obviously harming its participants. now boxing is out on the fringes, with little chance of ever regaining its perch as a major sport.

    to me, boxing is an obvious parallel to the nfl; both have leadership that will put aside the health of its participants (and actively fight any opinion to the contrary) as long as the money keeps flowing in...the tobacco industry is another good parallel.

    at some point the nfl will either adapt, and address the issue of player safety, or it will die. it's that simple.

  • Dragonchild

    The side of the issue that lacks visibility are the never-weres, the never-will-bes. I think if you ask most athletes who made over $10 million doing something they loved, they'll say the sacrifices were worth it. But most don't make that much. Oh, they make good money, but here's a more typical NFL story, one that happens a hundred times for every superstar that becomes a household name:

    22-year-old is drafted out of college and makes the roster. Is used sparingly in games, makes six figures a year ($400k or so, this is mid-level bank executive money here), but takes almost as many practice hits as the starters. The player was used extensively in high school and college (ANYONE who makes an NFL roster is basically a superstar at lower levels), so even before he sees his first NFL action his brain & body have taken on a lifetime's worth of punishment. As an expendable piece he's put on scout & special teams -- where the players take even MORE hits than the starters -- and within three years, he's cut.

    The average -- AVERAGE -- NFL career is three years.

    These guys are broken, largely uneducated and NOT set for life. They are not famous. They were given opportunities and maybe made a few bad choices (rather expected when you're treated like royalty), but they have chronic medical conditions and few work options prior to their 30th birthday. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I don't know if I'd call them victims, but it certainly sheds a harsh light on the business.

  • e jerry powell

    Even the superstars have some of those problems, particularly the ones that the sports pundits are bitching the most about now, the football players who weren't in college taking advantage of the opportunities that @Sara_Tonin00 talks about. I look at it as "The American Idol Effect" for lack of a better analogy. Are they exploited by the business? Yes, they are, but they signed up for it, perhaps without much foresight.

    Of course, at the same time, the NCAA is trying to minimize its role in the whole thing with that "most of us will be going pro in something other than sports" idea that most "student-athletes" are more realistic about their career options, but again, "American Idol." People these days aren't terribly realistic in general, and as such are very rarely inclined to examine any downside associated with particular career paths.

    I'm on Benadryl at the moment, so I'm probably not making any sense, much less addressing your actual point. Apologies.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'm not disputing the physically broken aspect of this, but nobody else is responsible for making sure that you take advantage of an education that was completely paid for. If you have few job options, that's your own fault.

    sidenote: I don't watch college football. I can't stand it. It's the worst aspects of both amateur and professional sports all rolled into one.

  • apsutter

    About college so? Not snarking just genuinely curious.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    For Division I, I feel like you have the same heartless money-making juggernaut that the NFL is, and the players are screwed out of money and even their likenesses - the schools and the conferences own these "students" while not actually caring for or nurturing them as student-athletes. The culture appears win-at-all-costs toxic from the top down. And winning, btw, is not necessarily winning the games, as much as it is winning contracts. It's how you end up with a situation like the blind eye turned to Sandusky at Penn State. It's how you end up with football coaches being the highest paid employees at the colleges. More than the deans, more than the president. (actually, it was through Pajiba I came across this disheartening graphic,

    The ridiculous advertiser-saturated bowls commodify a sentimental tradition while, by their sheer number and by the obtuse calculations determining who plays in those bowls, simultaneously destroying what made them worthwhile.

    Geez, you can't even see the amazing marching bands during televised games anymore. (guess what! they train as hard and travel as much as the football team, plus participate in their own competitions!)

    Any brain damage you get in the NFL will suck, no doubt, but you've got some shot at remuneration.

  • Chucktastic

    I played organized tackle football for 12 years. It imparted lessons of teamwork, discipline and perseverance, which helped me attend and graduate, with honors, from a great D.C. University.

    That being said, I once got up from a tackle and briefly saw only pink and green vertical stripes. Another time, after being kicked in the helmet, I had a blurry spot in my vision that lasted almost 20 minutes. I still wear a brace on my left knee when I'm active, a little reminder of a hit that resulted in a hyperextended knee and dislocated kneecap.

    I love the savagery and technical skills required of football and still watch it, from high school to my beloved Chicago Bears. However, I can no longer say I hope my sons play football; the risks, which we are more aware of now, simply outweigh the rewards, rewards that can be found in numerous other sports and activities.

  • Bodhi

    Thank you! I shall show this to my husband, who will one day need a full knee replacement due to a back hit

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    On the "would they do it anyway" question, it's a pretty emphatic yes.

    Many lifetimes ago I spent time at Olympic Training Camp (No, I didn't make it to the Olympics, I didn't make the team, didn't get a room, I was barely good enough to get a couple of looks). This was back in the late 80's when steroids were really coming to the fore. They made us go through several sessions to learn about the evils of PEDs, how they would shrink our testicles, get us arrested, etc.

    At the end, there was a researcher from some college who gave us a survey, and one of the questions was, roughly "given what you have learned today, if you thought steroids would give you a slightly better chance of making the team, would still you take them"?

    I learned afterwards that more than 50% of the answers were "yes".

    Mortality just isn't on your mind when you play sports at that level.

  • mrsdalgliesh

    I'm hypocritical about so many things that I don't know why this issue has caused an actual behavioral change in me. Nevertheless, I just can't enjoy pro and college football like I used to. Perhaps it's because I've worked with so many TBI survivors over the years. I'm not sure true informed consent would change my mind; the money is just too tempting and the reality of CTE just too distant.

    The only football I'll see this year is what's in this and other news coverage. Maybe I should join the Cannonball Read, since I'll have more weekends free,

  • Bodhi

    My husband's knee literally shattered during a high school football game & he is chomping at the bit for our son to be old enough to play Peewee. I have argued & will continue to argue against it for the many safety reasons, but I don't think I'll win.

    He also wants the tot to eventually play hockey. No. Freaking. Way.

  • Remind him that your child's love of sport is for the child, not him. If that doesn't resonate, hand him a pillow and blanket, point to the couch, and invite him to think about it.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Blood makes the grass grow!

    Really though, it is a terribly destructive sport, and I love it. I have nothing but respect for these behemoths and appreciate their sacrifice. That said, I'll bet dollars to QB sacks that not a one would quit the sport if they had a chance. You have to truly love what you do to be a professional athlete precisely because of the toll it takes on your body. Once you quit loving it, you're no longer a pro, as has been demonstrated again and again.


  • apsutter

    I agree that they have to truly love it to stick with it for so long and it's like that with any sport or physical activity. Just look at ballerinas or professional dancers. They're dancing and working at their craft for 8 to 10 hours a day all the time and ruin their bodies for a pittance. Anything so grueling truly takes real skill and a genuine love for it.

  • e jerry powell

    That, and believe that you're not much good at anything else.

    I truly don't mean that as a slam; it seems that with a little hindsight, many players do have some regrets -- mostly associated with being shortsighted about the potential downsides of the game -- even with their great love they have for what they do. Of course, more than a few of those players are currently suing the NFL, which brings us to the root of this post.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I love watching pro football. It is Sundays for me too - ordering or making something spicy, having a beer. Staying awake for the Giants game, dozing or working through the others. Meeting up with the Philly boys for mutual harassment when they play the Eagles. I love throwing a football around outside - it's somehow more satisfying than a baseball or frisbee.

    but my 8 year old nephew has just started playing. And even though he had a 20 yard touchdown carry on his second play and he is really scrappy, he is diabetic and a little small for his age and I my stomach got fluttery as soon as I heard he was starting to play. I was so relieved when my older nephew turned to soccer...but I doubt D is going to. And how is it even an exciting option for him, when the sport we all gather around as a family to watch and cheer and yell at the screen for is football?

  • I do all of that stuff as well, except my team is the Packers. My fiancee and her family are all Vikings fans. You want to talk about tension and strife among family during the holidays, inter-racial marriages have got nothing on intra-conference marriages.

  • I'm from MN, and it's one of the strangest of rivalries. Both insanely similar in culturally 'less flashy' states, yet they somehow think they are as different as the French and Germans.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Both of my exes were Igglz fans. But any tension/harassment was pretty much just foreplay.

  • That's the general rule between her and I, but some of her family take the rivalry somewhat more seriously. The fact that I'm a Republican(albeit a bad one)caused less consternation than my being a Packers fan did.

  • e jerry powell

    I love foreplay. But I'm guessing that the play play had to happen at halftime.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Nah, I'm not a purist. It really depended on the game.

    Though I am big proponent of making foreplay last until you just can't handle it another second.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Soccer is actually worse. Players may not hurt themselves that often, but the injuries are usually more severe.

  • BendinIntheWind

    I'm extremely interested in this doc and its subject matter, so I'm going to watch no matter what, but honestly, this trailer is TERRIBLE. :(

  • Robert

    Sensationalism? Those are the highlights that get instant replays during the broadcast and edited into every station's sports report during the nightly news.

  • Tom

    The NFL and all major football is in a holding pattern right now because they can't be honest about the inherent physical effects of their sport due to ongoing litigation. Once the NFL resolves the lawsuits brought by former players, they can admit that football causes brain damage no matter what kind of helmet you wear or how you tackle. Until that time comes, they will continue to pay lip service to the idea of safer football and push the focus onto concussions and big hits. The reality is that sub-concussive blows to the head that occur every single time two giant men hit each other cause brain damage too. Those simple plays where linemen run into each other from 1 yard apart are inherently dangerous.

    Stephen, if I had to predict the future, I would guess that at some point the NFL will finally begin to inform players of the physical effects and they will be able to give true informed consent. I don't think the NFL will go away. There are plenty of people who will still be willing to play football, even knowing that it will most likely cause brain damage. Personally, I'd just love to be able to get past this current era of grandstanding and get to the point where the NFL can be honest. I know how dangerous football is to the brain and I'm still watching.

  • e jerry powell

    For all of the good intentions, I just don't believe that the NFL is ever going to own up any more than any other employer would unless there is some form of higher-level intervention (not likely, given that there are only 32 teams with 53 players on each roster).

  • Tom

    It will probably never be the clear, open disclosure that I'd like. I guess the only reason cigarette manufacturers put any sort of a warning label is because the government made them. At this point, I'd take not seeing those stupid commercials with an actor in a lab coat pretending to be a doctor and telling us how much safer football is now.

  • e jerry powell

    Which may be the next thing the NFL tries in image rehabilitation.

    At the same time, defensive players in particular seem to believe that the game is diluted somehow by changing the rules to ensure "player safety," as if that argument isn't an argument for doing away with most contact sports altogether, or at least adding informed consent clauses to football contracts releasing the league and individual teams from all liability for any and all long-term aftereffects of injuries and disorders than can be directly linked to the game.

    Taking it to a logical extreme, it's cause enough for insurance actuaries to assess some higher-risk categories for pro football players specifically (and possibly college players as well), because they voluntarily choose to participate in a sport that inherently carries the (completely preventable) risk of brain injury.

  • Adam

    I'm a Doctor who works at a major hospital, we don't have American football in my country but we get plenty of car accidents and head traumas. When I was doing rotations in Neurology I would follow up on patients who had suffered head trauma, from concussions to subarachnoid hemorrhage, not terrible damage but enough to justify admission and a CT. When they came back for check-ups eventually a lot of them would tell me something like "you know doc, i don't feel like I used to". It was small things they couldn't quite put their finger on but it was noticeable to them and their family. All this from one head injury, I can only imagine what continuous trauma would do to a person, poor guys.

  • Ruthie O

    Only slightly related, but are folks in the Pajibaverse as obsessed with Hard Knocks as I am? I started watching last year, and this season is even better. I used to be pretty apathetic about football, but now I see the players and their commitment to the sport in a whole new light.

    More on topic, I will definitely be watching this documentary.

  • googergieger

    "ESPN pays the league, and then the league tells them what to do. It’s
    more ESPN’s problem. You gotta have no balls whatsoever to pay someone
    hundreds of millions of dollars and let them run your business."-Stan Van Gundy

  • lowercase_see

    My immediate reaction was "pssh, try rugby" and then I realized my soul had well and truly died.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn

    I think your soul's doing just fine.
    Watching fridge-size athletes lunge head first into each other followed by a commercial break isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea.
    You can cry "it's all about the tactics" all you want, but at the end of the day, it's people getting mangled for the sake of entertainment.
    Having said that, I make the effort to stay up once a year to watch the super-bowl. Without fail, I pass out before the wardrobes malfunction, due to the heavy combination of alcohol and stupor inducing boredom.
    Next year will be my year.

  • I would think that the problem would be less of an issue with rugby, for the same reasons that boxing actually became more dangerous after the inclusion of gloves: the padding gives the participant a false sense of security, and they tend to hit harder and stay in longer because they think it is protecting them enough. When there is no protective material, people are much more conscious of what they are doing and hold back more.

  • Rugby, while substantially more demanding, lacks a great deal of the extreme violence because of the lack of protection/armor, but it also is less horrific because coaches have far less impact on what happens from play to play. There isn't really an opportunity for a coach to insinuate her/him-self into the game once it begins, save making a few substitutions, which cannot be reversed. It's so much better in these respects and represents a game that is still more for players than coaches.

    Having said that, professionalism in rugby is shifting that game in negative ways, in my opinion. Players used to have to go to work on Monday, and so were slight less sanguine about kamikaze styles of play. That is less the case and the specialized training techniques (and almost certainly PED, whether legal or not) are tipping the scales toward the extreme end of the physical nature of the game.

    I bled football as a youth, and was a pretty good player, but I have absolutely zero interest in the game 30 years later, given how hyper-specialized, over-coached and completely exclusive to the domain of 'titans'. It reminds of the robot football on the Jetson's, and how a different robot would come out with a broom and dustpan to sweep up the broken robot players. That was a prescient view of football as gladiator spectacle.

  • lowercase_see

    Oh, yeah, I know. It's just that I went immediately to "my sport is harder than yours" and almost completely disregarded the real damage that football is doing out of some needless sense of competition.

    Instead, I'll just chalk up reason #397 why I don't like football.

  • AudioSuede

    This is the same thing that happened when the NFL threw a fit about their show Playmakers. ESPN can't stand up to anyone. It's how you can tell they're not a real organization of journalism.

  • Jiffylush

    That is ridiculous. Do people complain about Entertainment Tonight not being an organization of journalists? This is an organization that covers entertainment, not the news of the world.

  • AudioSuede

    If Warner Brothers got sued because a large percentage of their actors were suffering massive head injuries and Entertainment Tonight had commissioned a documentary exploring the subject and then got scared that they wouldn't be allowed to show clips of the new Superman movie and refused to show the documentary, yeah, I'd complain.

  • Tom

    I know it's only sports so ultimately it's not as big of a deal as other things, but the fact that local newspapers are giving way to ESPN local reporting will be a problem. ESPN is simply not as much of a news organization because they are business partners with almost every major sports league. I worry that it will lead to an absence of real reporting and a lack of real questions being asked. When the rubber hits the road, ESPN can't compromise its business relationships for journalism. It's something I'll be watching.

  • e jerry powell

    It's pretty much a foregone conclusion, so I don't know that watching it is necessarily a productive use of time.

    I mean, just watching the way the network sucked LeBron James's dick with The Decision is all the evidence anyone needs of where ESPN's priorities lie.

  • Tom

    Right. It's not like they're all of a sudden going to stop bowing to their "corporate partners". It's just something that will keep happening every possible time.

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