Last night, I was one of many Americans who watched the Frontline special League of Denial, detailing the issue of brain injuries in the sport of football. I rarely make a public television program appointment viewing, but it’s also not every day that hard journalism turns its gaze to the sports world. So I set aside the two hours to watch it live, and what I saw was intriguing, informative, and sobering.
League of Denial was the culmination of an extensive investigation by two brothers, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, into what the NFL knew about the effects of concussions on players’ brains, and when they knew it. The Fainaru brothers both work for ESPN, and the documentary was originally a co-production of Frontline and ESPN’s investigative program, Outside the Lines. While ESPN ended up pulling their name from the special, their reporters still participated in it, and it was featured prominently on ESPN.com in the weeks and days leading up to its premiere.
I could go spend hours trying to summarize every detail about League of Denial, but instead I’ll give five things that really stuck in my mind…
- The discovery of damage on the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, the “Patient Zero” of the NFL’s concussion problem, was made by the one man in all of Pittsburgh who had never heard of Mike Webster. In fact, Dr. Bennet Omalu knew nothing about the game of football. All he knew was that he had a dead 50 year-old with abnormal brain damage. I can’t say whether the damage on Webster’s brain would have been so thoroughly examined by someone who was a Steelers fan, but Dr. Omalu’s lack of football knowledge certainly gave him a clean slate on the subject.
- The NFL went to great lengths to try and discredit the research being done by people such as Dr. Omalu. Some even went as far as to insinuate that the Nigerian-born pathologist practiced voodoo medicine. The league’s tactics were compared to those used by the tobacco companies to hide the effects of cigarettes. When they formed a committee to study concussions, they put zero neurologists on it. That’s like forming a committee to study kitchens and none of the members being able to cook.
- Concussions get all the attention, but most of the hits that cause brain damage don’t cause any of the typical symptoms. The revelation of these “sub-concussive” hits is what made me pause and think about myself. I was a lineman in high school, and while I didn’t play much, I’m now worried about the possibility of long term effects from those few small blows to the head.
These last two takeaways are from a special my local PBS affiliate, Iowa Public Television, aired immediately following League of Denial. It was a panel discussion, with two local sports reporters posing questions to a couple of high school coaches and the team physician for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
- According to the doctor of the group, added padding to football helmets does nothing to decrease the chance of concussions. While they do prevent such things as cracked skulls and broken jaws, today’s headgear is as effective against brain injuries as the leather caps from the early days of the game.
- One of the coaches, former Iowa Hawkeye and NFL player Marv Cook, was asked, “Can it be safe an still be football?” His simple answer: “No.”
It’s too early to say what effect League of Denial will have on the game of football, but I think the biggest change has already occurred. Players now know the risk of brain damage, and more importantly, parents know the risks. The football community is now an informed electorate, and they will vote with their pocketbooks, and in some cases with their young sons.
I took a moment today to look back on the “major” decisions in my life, trying to determine what that first one was. What I discovered is that my first one was also my most important one, and the easiest one I ever made.
It was the day I chose to be an organ donor.
I wish I had some grand story about some epiphany that led me to check “Y” when I got my Driver’s License, but really I did it because it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know about the seven people that would be saved, I didn’t even really know about my friend who had been saved. All I knew was that I could give one more piece of myself to someone else after I’m gone.
Someone’s Heather needs a healthy organ, and I can be their George. That’s why I’m proud to say “Donor: Y”.
Today, on the 11th of September, I remember the 343. When the bell rang, they answered the call. When their brothers and sisters were in trouble, they came to their aid. Among the chaos of America’s greatest tragedy, they stayed true to their motto.
They were New York’s Bravest.
BILL WATTERSON ‘A cartoonist’s advice’
"If you were a tree, what tree would you be?"
I would be this tree. I would plant myself where I wish and grow as I please. I would make the world work around me, and I would reward it by growing strong and beautiful. I would be a source of pride, a reminder of home, a place of respite for the wayward traveler.
If I were a tree, I would be The Tree in the Middle of the Road.
It’s been 8 years, 3 months, and 13 days since I made the promise. You remember it, that promise to take care of Mom? It’s been a long, stressful 8 years. I’ve hung on, sometimes by the very tip of my fingernail, until I ran out of fingernails. I dug myself a hole that I may never fully fill.
But I did it, and today is mission accomplished. I hope I did you proud.
This Brooklyn Dodgers spring training photo reminds you, the viewer, through its use of light, line, and perspective, that sit-ups are the absolute worst thing a human being can do to itself.
(Photo by George Silk, h/t Reddit)
I am a radio producer.
I am the silent partner of your favorite show.
If I do my job right, you barely know I’m there.
I don’t talk a lot, if at all, and I’m just fine with that.
I focus on making the show sound good, so that the real talent can work on making themselves sound good.
I keep things on time, what happens during that time is up to someone else.
I report, and I occasionally commentate, but I never do both at the same time.
I invest a part of myself in every show, every hour, every segment.
All I ask for in return is the chance to do it again tomorrow.