- League of Denial (2013) dir. by Michael Kirk
The documentary League of Denial makes the case that the National Football League (NFL) has ignored a growing body of evidence about the long-term dangers of concussions and tried to refute this emerging science with its own questionable research. First shown in October 2013 on PBS’s Frontline series, the film appeared at a time of increasing media attention to the dangers of head trauma in football. Since 2005, New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz has written so extensively about the negative consequences of concussions sustained by football players that The Columbia Journalism Review credited him with putting “the issue on the agenda of lawmakers, sports leagues, and the media at large.”
Schwarz is one of many journalists, doctors, researchers, and former players interviewed in League of Denial, but the documentary is based primarily on the best-selling book by two ESPN reporters (and brothers), Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. Director Michael Kirk starts the film where research on the link between football and brain damage took off: the 2002 death of former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster at age 50. Neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on Webster and found in his brain a disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It was the first evidence that hits to the head from playing football can cause permanent brain damage manifested in depression, memory loss, and, in some cases, dementia. Running for almost two hours, League of Denial traces the research initiated by Omalu and developed subsequently by scientists at Boston University led by Dr. Ann McKee. However, central to the narrative of the film is not only an explanation of the growing body of evidence on the link between football and CTE but also the conflict created by the NFL’s strong resistance to this scientific research. In 2005, Omalu published his findings of CTE in Webster’s brain in the journal Neurosurgery. The following year, doctors from the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee requested that the journal retract Omalu’s paper, claiming that it contained faulty science.
Just as the NFL rejected Omalu’s findings, when McKee presented her results on football players and head trauma in 2009 to the same MTBI Committee at the NFL’s New York City headquarters, the panel dismissed her as well. “Sexism is a big part of my life,” McKee recalls, “and getting in that room with a bunch of males who thought that they knew all the answers, more sexism. It was like, ‘Oh, the girl talked. Now we can get back to some serious business.’”
As it traces the league’s defensive response to McKee and the Nigerian-born Omalu, the documentary reveals how gender and racial bias figure into the NFL’s position. In contrast to McKee and Omalu, all the league officials, doctors, and researchers who represent its position are white males. While two-thirds of its players are African American, there are no black and just three female owners in the NFL. Perhaps more importantly, Richard Lapchick reports that, in 2013—the year when League of Denial was made—just 4 percent of the league’s team doctors were black and only 2 percent were women. [End Page 102]
Despite the NFL’s success in blunting the impact of research linking head trauma from football and CTE, League of Denial reports that, when retired star linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in May 2012 and was later found to have had CTE, the league, fearing renewed attention to the issue, went on a public relations offensive by setting up a youth-safety initiative to teach young players proper tackling techniques to reduce the likelihood of head trauma. It also gave $30 million to the National Institute of Health to study sports injuries. Nonetheless, while it had been nineteen years since the establishment of its MTBI committee, at the 2013 Super Bowl NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continued to call for additional study without accepting the link between football-related concussions and CTE.
ESPN originally agreed to participate in the...