At a presentation for their new Frontline documentary, “League of Denial,” about the NFL’s treatment of concussions which premieres on October 8, in Los Angeles on Tuesday, filmmakers, journalists, and even former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson were blunt about the impact of concussions, and the crisis they represent for football on all levels. But they all seemed at a loss as to what a possible path forward for the sport might be, given the confluence of a deeply rooted culture and enormous amounts of money.
Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson suggested that while football players were more aware of the impact concussions can have on their lives going forward, wishful thinking that they’d be spared and the money they’re paid makes it difficult for many of them to walk away.
“I think a lot came out of players committing suicide, especially Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. Because Junior Seau was a more contemporary player…when he committed suicide, I think that was a heads-up for a lot of players,” Carson suggested. “There have been a couple of players who have voluntarily retired from the NFL because they don’t think it’s that important for them to play the game, and they want to be able to play with their kids and get on with their lives…The most money I ever made as a pro football player was $550,000 and that was 1986, ’87, ’88. But the millions of dollars these players are being paid now is so over the top…It’s very difficult for many players to walk away from that kind of money.”
And Carson suggested that football would have to change at its lowest levels to produce a different kind of player, a different game, and a different approach to injuries.
“When you have six-year-olds and they start running into each other and one of them starts crying, the coach says ‘Don’t cry. You’re a big guy. don’t cry,'” Carson said. “When you see players who will play through injuries you want to be like that. Those guys become heroes to the younger players. They start to grow and play the game in such a matter where they have to be tough. You can’t be timid and be a football player on any level. It does sort out who the tough guys are and who the timid guys are.”
Steve Fainaru said that the NFL was deeply invested in continuing that culture, and played a powerful role in perpetuating it.
“The NFL has been marketing and promoting violence and a culture of violence for decades, and has been quite successful in doing that,” he said. “This is obviously, self-evidently, a destructive and potentially lethal problem right now. So how do you balance that with a culture that promotes it agaisnt the medical reality that they’re facing?”
The subject of that culture came up when Dwayne Bray, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN, took some tough questions about the extent to which his network and their associated products can cover the concussion crisis honestly, given the money they make off broadcasting NFL games, and at times from including hard hits in their highlight reels. “ESPN has been covering this subject for almost two decades,” he said, noting that Carson first remembered being interviewed about concussions by ESPN reporters in 1994 as a defense against the idea that the network has in some way ignored or covered up the concussion crisis. That was the year that the NCAA adopted their first concussion guidelines, though they were non-binding, and colleges have noted the dangers of concussions linked to athletics as early as 1937.
And he suggested that the fact that Frontline had chosen to partner with ESPN proved that their reporting on concussions was strong. “Our journalism has been very strong on this issue, so strong that we partner with Frontline!” he said. “Frontline is the gold standard for long-form documentaries…ESPN and other media entities are being educated as well. I think we’ve shown a lot of restraint especially in recent years, in showing the big hits…We don’t show any of that footage willy-nilly. There is a lot of thought and discussion that goes into our highlights.”
Director Michael Kirk suggested that touting improvements in helmets were more of a panacea than an actual cure for concussions.
“The helmet’s designed to protect you from a skull fracture, and it really does,” he said. “But it gives you a weapon on the top of your head to tackle harder, and hit harder. With the creation of the face mask, it became a brutal part of the game.” In a concussion, the skull is effectively turned into a weapon of the brain bumping into it during a sudden reversal of momentum when the brain is still traveling forward but the head as a whole is snapped back by a hit.
And Mark Fainaru-Wada, an investigative journalist who also broke the story about Barry Bonds’ involvement with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, said that it was difficult for viewers who watch the game on television at home to really appreciate how violent professional football actually is, something that came as a shock to him when he covered his first San Francisco 49ers game.
“I remember being down there for the fist time and being both utterly shocked and terrified at what I was seeing,” he said. Watching the game on “TV or even being in person [in the stands] does not do justice to how violent, how fast, how loud the sport is…When you’re down on the field, even on the sidelines, it’s remarkable and it’s terrifying.”
The only way to make a difference, they suggested, might be for individual families to make decisions about whether they were comfortable with their children playing football in the future.
“One of the things that motivated my own personal interest in the topic is just the idea of millions of children who play Pop Warner, Peewee football, a million eight who play in high school and 68,000 who play in college,” Kirk explained. “It’s one thing to be a professional athlete, which is not to diminish their fear of an invisible disease that attacks their brains…But honestly, I wanted an answer kind of personally and otherwise about in the first instance, who should be playing football? And what about my own children, and your children?…At what age should they be playing football, and under what circumstances?”
He isn’t alone. Bray said his son was running cross-country in the fall instead of playing football. Fainaru said that his young son, who had told Fainaru when he was covering the war in Iraq that he wanted to go to the country, too, had expressed interest in playing football when he moved to work in sports, but that “Now that he’s about to start school, he seems to have lost interest. It did force me in that moment to confront how I feel about this.” And Carson was blunt about what he’d taken from his experience playing at the NFL level and being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. “Parents need to be vigilant as to what they allow their children to do,” he said. “When you sign that consent form, you really need to understand exactly what you’re doing. As for me and my family, I don’t want my grandson to play.”