It has been two months since the release of the PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial — and a book by the same name — which told the story of the National Football League’s unwillingness to acknowledge the problem concussions and brain injuries posed to the game of football and its players. Not much has changed since then. The NFL is still more popular than ever, and while it and its fans may be more cognizant of concussions suffered on the field than it ever has been before, the league has shown no signs of slowing down.
Now, though, the story is on the verge of receiving a major shot in the arm. According to Deadline Hollywood, a production company has won the rights to adapt the book into a screenplay, meaning a dramatized League of Denial could be hitting the big screen sometime in the future.
Parkes/McDonald Productions, which won the rights this week, could proceed in any number of ways, turning it into a feature film or a pay cable movie, especially since the partnership that allowed them to secure the rights wasn’t based on having a studio ready to run with it right away. But since a feature-length League of Denial film could reach audiences a book and a PBS documentary couldn’t, here are four ideas for turning it into a piece that would both tell the important parts of the story and attract audiences:
1. Focus on Mike Webster & Dr. Bennet Omalu: Webster, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman who died in 2002 after years of struggling with brain disease, and Omalu, the Nigerian coroner who discovered CTE in Webster’s brain, make a compelling duo for telling the story of the NFL’s concussion and brain damage denial. In his post-football life, Webster lost his family, his home, and his sanity, showing the worst of what can happen to a former player suffering from brain damage. It was Webster, after all, who first got the NFL to admit that its game could cause long-term brain trauma when he took his case to the league’s disability board, which acknowledged in a confidential ruling that football caused — or at least contributed to — many of his post-career problems.
No one, meanwhile, may symbolize the NFL’s attack on science more than Omalu, who was demolished by the NFL upon publishing his findings from Webster’s brain. While other doctors came along and studied CTE after him, it was Omalu who made the discovery in Webster’s brain and set the wheels in motion. The NFL’s doctors tried to discredit his research with their own and went so far as to exclude him from future discussions about the dangers of discussions. Focusing on Omalu also offers the chance to tell the story of the arms race of sorts that developed between different brain researchers over the last two decades, since his eccentric personality helped isolate him from other doctors and researchers as they all tried to further the research on CTE and football-related brain injuries.
For those reasons, Omalu and Webster provide two of the more compelling characters in the entire saga. Few symbolize the struggle with brain disease more than Webster; few demonstrate the full brunt of the NFL’s opposition to any dissent from the party line more than Omalu. The football player and the doctor who knew nothing about the sport allow the story to be told from two different and yet intertwined viewpoints, which is why the book itself focuses so heavily on their stories.
2. Through the eyes of Dr. Ann McKee: If Omalu was the big personality who knew nothing about football, McKee was the opposite: the tomboy brain doctor who loved football so much her office was adorned with Green Bay Packers gear. But that didn’t deter McKee from challenging the league she loved. She was as responsible as anyone for furthering the research on CTE, studying brain after brain of former football players as part of the Boston University group that made studying the disease a priority. The NFL didn’t target McKee to the extent that it did Omalu — she didn’t make as easy a target, for one — but unlike Omalu, her story allows for a clear glimpse of the inside of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which roundly dismissed her research when she presented it to them.
McKee provides an interesting counter-figure to the NFL’s doctors, chiefly Ira Casson and Elliot Pellman, the leaders of denial on the MTBI Committee, and while she doesn’t pack the personality of Omalu, she’s no wallflower, especially when it comes to discussing the potential dangers of the game. It was McKee who said, in the League of Denial documentary, that she “really wonder(ed) if all NFL players don’t have this,” a statement that reportedly caught the ire of ESPN higher-ups and made them back out of their production partnership with PBS. And while McKee doesn’t come with the obvious tie to Webster, she did find CTE in the brain of former lineman Tom McHale and presented the findings, along with McHale’s wife, at a Super Bowl press conference that drew a smattering of media attention.
3. The inner-workings of the NFL: Telling the story of how the NFL worked to discredit doctors like McKee and Omalu and how it denied the link between concussions and long-term brain issues would be another captivating storyline for a League of Denial drama. The league and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, after all, denied that concussions were a problem and created the MTBI Committee specifically to prove that they weren’t, a goal the committee did its best to achieve despite the efforts of doctors outside the game. Pellman and Casson are among the most interesting figures in entire story, given that Casson had once studied brain issues in boxers and that Pellman, a rheumatologist, had no background in brain injuries at all.
In the middle of the crisis, Tagliabue dumped the entire issue at the feet of current commissioner Roger Goodell, and the league eventually admitted a link between concussions and brain injuries to the New York Times before walking it back again when thousands of former players who sued the league over its handling of concussions. The fact that the league went to the lengths it did to deny that link is, more than anything, the impetus for League of Denial — the inner-workings of how it managed to do so even in the face of growing research, then, is a story worth telling.
The one problem with this line is that it would take significantly more dramatization than the others, since many of the guts of this story remain unknown thanks to the league’s unwillingness to participate in the book or documentary. Some of the story can be gleaned from both publications, but there are many dots left unconnected, meaning this approach could compromise the telling of the sides of the story we do know to piece together a story we don’t.
4. The Dissenters: “The Dissenters” was the name given to the group of doctors, researchers, and other figures within the NFL that dared go against the party line on concussions and brain injuries. Led by Dr. Robert Cantu, who was an editor at the journal that first published the NFL’s research papers, and other doctors like Julian Bailes, William Barr, and Kevin Guskiewicz, the Dissenters provide inside looks at both the NFL and the study of brains and the impacts of concussions. The Dissenters group also includes superagent Leigh Steinberg, who became focused on the concussion issue after two of his clients, star quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Young, suffered multiple concussions in their careers.
The most compelling part about group of Dissenters is that they tie all parts of the story together. Cantu provides a link to McKee, as both worked later for the BU Group. Bailes provides the connection to Omalu, since they later worked together to study concussions. Barr, Bailes, and Guskiewicz provide varying connections to the NFL — Bailes and Guskiewicz both worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Barr worked as a consultant for the New York Jets alongside Pellman, the original NFL researcher on the MTBI committee. All three have long been recognized as leaders in the field, and all three were present at the NFL’s first concussion summit in 2009, when Bailes stood on the podium and challenged the NFL’s culture of denial with Pellman, other NFL researchers, and commissioner Roger Goodell in the audience.
Perhaps focusing on Webster and the football side of this would make for the best high-drama, football-movie sort of film. But if the goal is to tell as much of as many parts of the story as possible in a feature-length film while also providing interesting stories to watch, centering around the group of dissenters who dared challenge the NFL from both the inside and outside may be the best way to go.