"League of Denial" Paints Ominous Portrait of Football

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • This is not a professional sports site; nor is it a college football site. It is, however, a diet and exercise site that encourages people to embrace healthy behaviors in order to live their best life and to encourage their loved ones to do the same. Therefore, if you have anyone who is playing any level of football – whether pee week, high school, collegiate or pro – I’d encourage you to watch Frontline’s documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis.”

    Dad and I watched it last night. Early on as the highlight reels played as background for the story, Dad would cheer upon seeing his favorite team, “Hey, there are the Denver Broncos!” By the end of the two-hour program, we were both flinching whenever we saw even the slightest amount of contact to the head. This program provided a fascinating timeline of what happened when and who the major players were as far as the tug of war in determining who is at fault for the brain damage that many players have suffered.

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    A key date was the death of “Iron” Mike Webster, the star center for the Pittsburg Steelers that won four Super Bowl championships, at the age of 50 in 2002. The ensuing autopsy showed the physical aftermath of playing football – including destroyed feet and legs (which Frontline showed a picture of), herniated disk, a separated shoulder, cellulitis (which is a common and potentially skin infection caused by bacteria), cardiovascular issues, teeth that had been Superglued back into his body and scar tissue on his forehead from so many helmet-to-helmet hits. Those were just some of the injuries that could be seen in the initial autopsy What couldn’t be seen was the actual effect of those blows to the brain, even though Webster displayed memory loss, agitation, rage, loss of stamina and confusion. The medical coroner, a trained neuropathologist at the Allegheny Coroner’s Office, decided to “fix” the brain in formalin for a period of time prior to cutting it. The coroner, who had no interest in football – and who didn’t even know who Mike Webster was, even though he was from the Pittsburgh area – found tau plaques in the brain.

    However, several years prior to his death, Webster saw a lawyer about bringing a case that he had suffered brain damage as a result of his 17-year history of playing in the NFL. After finally receiving statements by various doctors (including the NLF’s doctor), the NFL’s Disability Committee acknowledged Webster’s injury and the effect of football in causing it. That was in 2000. Since then, the brains of many former football players who have died have been autopsied; many have been found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The NFL has settled a case brought by former players for $765 million, but made sure the settlement included a clause stating that the league is not admitting to any negligence in head injuries.

    Frontline noted that the NFL has had a history of marketing the sport’s violence and because of its power, has a large influence in what happens at the collegiate and youth level. And not surprisingly – but very scarily – the PBS program highlighted two cases of special concern for parents. The first was Owen Thomas, who was described as a hard-hitting football player since the age of 9 who had not been diagnosed with a concussion. However, he already had developed CTE when he died at the age of 21. Former NFL player Harry Carson, who was a nine-time Hall of Famer Pro Bowl linebacker, suggested that this may have been caused by the 6-10 mini-concussions that players often suffer each game.

  • Then there is the cautionary tale of Eric Pelly, an 18-year-old football player who died 10 days after suffering his fourth concussion. Researchers found areas of tau -- the hallmark of CTE -- that had already developed in Pelly’s frontal lobe. That finding caused one leading researcher on CTE to note that – while it wasn’t the consensus view – if she had a son who was 12-years-old or under, she wouldn’t let him play tackle football.

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    I hope that parents of football players watch Frontline – and heed the warnings of the danger of this sport. This is too serious a situation to remain quietly on the sidelines instead of taking a stand to protect each player's safety.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Mayo Clinic. (2012). Cellulitis.

    PBS.org. (2013). League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Frontline.

Published On: October 09, 2013