As you watch League of Denial, the two-hour Frontline investigation premiering tomorrow night on PBS — as you watch its subjects, the men running the NFL, evolve from private ignorance to public dishonesty on the issue of concussions — you may at some point realize that a story about brain trauma has left you involuntarily shaking your own head. Eighteen months in the making, League of Denial is a triumph of investigative journalism into one of the most pressing public health crises of our time.
It was only six weeks ago that ESPN, which had been a high-profile collaborator on League of Denial for the better part of a year, severed all ties with Frontline, citing a lack of editorial control. (The New York Times, among others, reported that NFL pressure may have been involved in abrupt decision.) ESPN had to consider how comfortable it was potentially antagonizing a major business partner, but PBS and Frontline had no such worries, and so League of Denial stands not only as a testament to their award-winning reporting chops but a badge of bravery, public television holding its own with a $10 billion sporting behemoth like the NFL.
League of Denial follows a fairly straight trajectory from its opening segment, which covers the violent career and sad decline of former Steelers center Mike Webster. Webster’s 2002 death and subsequent autopsy led eventually to the recent $765 million settlement between the league and several thousand former players over the detrimental neurological effects of playing the sport. These points, 11 years apart, bookend a brisk but methodical narrative in which the NFL shifts from blithe insouciance to aggression. Along the way, players’ lives spiral downward and medical professionals’ reputations are needlessly tarnished, all while the largest and most successful American sports grows larger and more successful.Read the rest.