Last night, the Public Broadcasting Service aired “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” an in-depth documentary that examines the correlation between football and the long term effects the sport has on physical and mental health. Further than that, however, is the NFL’s prior knowledge of the correlation and its campaign to cover up the information.
In 1994, the NFL established the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBI) with the purpose of studying and evaluating the effects of prolonged trauma to the human by from playing professional football. The group did its job, however, afraid that the ramifications be damning, should the MTBI be open with its findings, the committee hid the correlations. But one player’s story became the catalyst that drew public and serious medical attention to the controversy.
The most resonating part of the documentary was the story of Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Webster, who helped lead the team to four Super Bowl championships. Webster died in 2002. In the final years of Webster’s life, his mental state deteriorated severely, suffering violent mood swings, losing his train of thought, and unable to complete sentences.
It was thought that he was suffering an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. However, after Webster’s death, pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu examined the body, and his findings concluded that Webster’s diminished state was not caused by Alzheimer’s.
What Omalu found was eye-opening. Upon examination, Omalu discovered scar tissue on top of Webster’s head caused by years of head-to-head collisions and when examining the brain, there were no signs of Alzheimer’s. After further study of Webster’s brain, he found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease caused specifically by a multiplicity of concussions. Symptoms of CTE are memory loss, aggression, and dementia, the same symptoms that Webster exhibited in his final years.
In 2005, Omalu published a paper of his findings in Neurosurgery, a neuroscientific medical journal. After publication, the report was met with ire by the MTBI, and especially the committee’s chair, Dr. Elliott Pellman. Pellman then attacked Omalu’s credibility, saying the study was “voodoo” and publicly called for Omalu to retract the study.
Pellman’s initial appointment to the MTBI raised controversy because his expertise did not lie in neuroscience. The only reason that Pellman got the job heading up the MTBI was because he was then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s personal physician. Also, Pellman claimed to have studied at Stony Brook University, which turned out to be a lie being that he studied medicine at a college in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Shortly after the Webster study, Omalu published another study on Terry Long, another former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who committed suicide in 2005. After Long died, it was discovered that he too had CTE (CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem). Omalu brought forth the Long study to an NFL doctor, who also gave him pushback about the findings.
“Bennet, do you know the implications of what you’re doing?” said the doctor. “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
Despite Dr. Omalu making these findings and publishing them, numerous league doctors claimed time after time that there was absolutely no connection between taking hits in football and long-term brain damage.
During an interview with HBO Real Sports in 2007, MTBI co-chairman Dr. Ira Casson, who became head of the MTBI when Roger Goodell became NFL commissioner, denied any link between CTE symptoms and head injuries among NFL players. He has long-time been a concussion denier.
And the rub of all this hiding? Profit protection. The NFL was certainly afraid that any negative press, especially this negative, would carve out of its millions of dollars of revenue. Some speculate that this documentary could be the proverbial death stroke to the NFL. However, a two-hour film, no matter how well-done, brilliant, or insightful it is, will not bring down something as rich and powerful as the National Football League so easily.
You can view the documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on the PBS website here.
Josh is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow him on Twitter @dnJdeli.