This column was supposed to be a follow-up to last week's regarding mental health issues among collegiate athletes. However, recent events sometimes have a way of taking over one's best laid plans.
Such is the case with the season premiere of PBS' Frontline Series at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WTTW (Ch. 11).
Given my past history with Frontline, I was more than a little surprised when a publicist contacted me late last week regarding the episode entitled “League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis.” I have been highly critical of their April 2011 documentary entitled “Football High” — when it originally ran and as recently as six weeks ago in this space. It was a hatchet job.
So I have to give the producers of tonight's airing credit. When I told them I wanted to see tonight's program in its entirety first, they provided a copy within hours.
Given who did the reporting for League of Denial, I had high hopes. ESPN writers — and brothers — Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada have impeccable credentials. Fainaru-Wada and his then-writing partner at the San Francisco Chronicle, Lance Williams, did the bulk of the reporting in the mid-2000s which exposed Barry Bonds as a steroid user and BALCO as his source.
Last week, Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine published separate excerpts from Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada's book, to be released by Random House today, upon which tonight's show is based. Entitled “League of Denial: the NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for the Truth,” it won't be on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's Christmas wish list.
Nor will a DVD of tonight's two-hour show. It largely lived up to my expectations — after the first half hour.
Those initial 30 minutes recount the sad story of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster who died homeless at age 50 in 2002, just 11 years after retiring from the NFL. Without then-Allegheny County pathologist Bennett Omalu, MD, discovering Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Webster's brain, tonight's program asserts we wouldn't be nearly as concerned with concussion in sports. Agreed, but I could have done without the depressing and tedious narrative which focused for so long on Webster alone.
The remainder of the episode recounts the NFL's efforts to suppress and deny the scientific evidence of the dangers of repeated blows to the head. Part of that suppression came from data published by scientists on the league payroll. If it wasn't for the faulty — that's putting it kindly — research by the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee starting in 2003, other sports bodies would have been able to deal far more effectively with concussion.
The last 90 minutes are not without their faults. Omalu and Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee, MD are painted as largely innocent victims of an NFL smear campaign. I attended a lecture in January by Omalu where he included graphic autopsy photos which did not censor the identity of former NFL players, including Webster. They were entirely gratuitous. I doubt the families of the deceased would have approved.
As for McKee, she has done ground-breaking work. Nonetheless, she more than infers that since nearly every football player she has autopsied has had CTE, then everyone who plays football is similarly doomed. Left out is the fact that prior to those autopsies, the deceased were already suspected of having the condition. Her claims notwithstanding, McKee has yet to establish an incidence of CTE and is a long way from doing so.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.