Tonight's PBS Frontline documentary, League of Denial, earned some major buzz a few weeks ago when ESPN, a former partner in the film, disassociated itself under pressure from the NFL, according to the Times. After watching the documentary, which examines how the NFL has ignored and undermined the growing medical evidence that football causes long-term damage to the brains of many of the athletes who play it, it's clear the NFL has good reasons to be worried.
One of the more startling revelations from the film is that football players don't need to sustain any kind of freak, horrific blows to the head to become afflicted with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which causes depression, mood swings, and memory loss, and has been blamed in the suicides of a number of former players. You don't even need to have ever suffered a concussion. The sport itself — the repeated trauma to the head that is an inevitable part of the gameplay — is the culprit. And you don't even need to play for very long.
As this clip provided exclusively to Daily Intelligencer shows, Dr. Ann McKee, one of the nation's leading researchers in CTE, was startled to find clear evidence of CTE in the brain of Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old college football player who hanged himself in 2010:
A day after watching a screener of the movie, I tuned into the Monday Night Football game between the Jets and Falcons. It wasn't the same. Like many football fans, I've always cringed a little during those big, loud helmet-to-helmet hits, the ones you can almost feel in your own neck as you watch them. But now, even during the mundane plays, I couldn't shake the thought that men were mortgaging their futures away, and perhaps shortening their lives significantly, for my entertainment. In the Princess Bride, Count Rugen had a machine — known, aptly, as the Machine — which literally drains years of life out of those strapped to it. I'd watch the massive linemen slam themselves into each other, play after play, and hear Rugen's cold voice: "I've just sucked one year of your life away."
Ultimately, though, the threat to the NFL won't come from squeamish fans. It will come from a growing scientific body of evidence of the risk of playing football at any age, and from the parents who become increasingly aware of that risk. The NFL fully understands the danger this would pose. In one scene in League of Denial, neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, the first doctor to find CTE in the brain of a football player who had killed himself, recounts a private meeting he had with an NFL doctor.
"The NFL doctor at some point said to me, 'Bennet, do you know the implications of what you're doing?" Omalu replied that he did, but that the doctor should go ahead and tell him what he thinks the implications are. "He said, 'If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.'"