09 October 2013

After League of Denial, what is next for the NFL?

After watching League of Denial tonight on Frontline, the case that the NFL knew about the growing concussion problem in the league and the severe effects that concussions can have on one's brain (just look at the story of the late Pittsburgh center Mike Webster) and proceeded to do nothing about it and instead deny that there was a problem is very strong. Plenty of evidence is provided in how the NFL, whether it be through the utilization of medical frauds without any expertise in neurology, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue referring to the situation as a "pack journalism issue," the continuous attempts to shoot the messenger by attempting to destroy the credibility of the growing number of doctors raising awareness of the concussion effects on the brain (I counted at least four attempts to destroy Dr. Bennet Amalu, who fortunately knew nothing about football and the NFL or else he would not have pursued this case), as well as commissioner Roger Goodell continually denying any sort of connection between football and CTE even when the league had all but admitted before that there was a connection. That is not even counting the pretty blatant pressure put on ESPN to pull out of the project by the league.

And now with perhaps the largest perception crisis the league, normally accustomed to putting out fires no matter the size with ease, has had to face ever, and with more questions surrounding the safety of football, how the league responds will be extremely crucial.

First off, I think we have to give a great deal of credit to the two reporters who have worked to put this piece, as well as the book which came out today, by the investigative reporting tandem of brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada as both have plenty of stones to pursue such a massive case that the NFL reporters have all but ignored for the most part until recently (the key point being when Dr. Ann McKee and Chris Nowinski of Boston University presenting critical evidence on the effect football can have on the brain during the week of Super Bowl XLIII and very few members of the media were present as most were frolicking at Media Day). Also have to give a lot of praise for Alan Schwartz of the New York Times who was one of the few reporters that was doggedly following this story and helped to lay the groundwork for this investigation.

Now of course, this was a documentary that was solidly one-sided, although those trying to defend the NFL and to question the claims of McKee and Amalu don't do a particularly great job trying to make their respective case. And considering the NFL refused to collaborate at all, representing their side was much more difficult. Plus, the silence of the NFLPA during this entire process was not noted in the piece, particularly during the years of the late Gene Upshaw, who was infamously derided as being a 'personal pet' of Tagliabue by Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports. The Players' Association should also get some of the blame pie as well as the folks that all but ignored this story.

But the point still stands that a very powerful case was made against the NFL, and the league is going to have to do some serious damage control as the evidence was presented pretty clearly that the league all but ignored the issue. The league implicitly feared damage to the game as a result of suffering injuries that would have a serious impact long after the conclusion of the playing career of not just NFL players, but even youth football players, and thus they tried to essentially sweep it under the rug. A Mild Traumatic Brian injury committee was formed in 1994 and its existence has been to claim that hits to the head were not causing any real damage to the brain. It was chock full of NFL loyalists and was led by someone that was not a neurologist but rather a rheumatologist, whose expertise is with identifying arthritis and other health problems affecting bones, joints and muscles.

You also have Goodell continually try to say that there is no definitive connection between concussions and CTE and that more research has to be done. Of course, that means research that is friendlier to the league's bottom line as they do not factor in the work of Amalu and McKee. Plus, the NFL had essentially admitted that football can lead to serious brain injuries back in 2000 during the Webster case in which he was trying to get more benefits from the NFL, which was conveniently held under wraps until recently. Also, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello acknowledged that concussions can lead to long-term health issues back in 2009. The doc reported that in the 50 brains of deceased players studied by Dr. McKee and her team, 49 had CTE, including a high school and a college player, neither of whom had concussion issues.

It is time for the NFL to cut their disgraceful spin and actually begin to address this problem. If they fail to do so, the hits to their credibility will be permanent and thus the damage to the game of football may never be reversed. There is no question that the evidence is quite clear that football and concussions from football can lead to serious brain issues, the league has even admitted it before. The league can start by seriously addressing the problem and stop trying to shoot the messengers. If they fail to do so, this issue will never go away. But football may instead.

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