'Frontline’ lifts the lid on head trauma in NFL - The Buffalo News

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'Frontline’ lifts the lid on head trauma in NFL

During Wednesday’s media sessions, I mentioned the words “League of Denial” to 10 members of the Bills, including head coach Doug Marrone. For the most part, I got blank stares in return.

“What is that?” Kyle Williams asked. “Is it a story?”

“No, I really was not aware of the whole thing,” said Nickell Robey.

“What is that?” said Arthur Moats. He had no clue. Neither did fellow linebacker Manny Lawson, who was sitting at the adjacent locker.

It wasn’t altogether surprising. NFL players operate in a tight professional cocoon. Football dominates their daily existence. They’re good at blocking out distractions – especially when it involves revelations about the imminent dangers of playing their sport.

“League of Denial” is the talk of the sports media world this week. The book, by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, is a blistering investigation into the NFL’s attempt to cover up landmark medical research that showed a connection between concussions and brain damage in players.

The book was excerpted in Sports Illustrated last week and released in time for a two-hour PBS “Frontline” documentary Tuesday night. “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” will be broadcast locally next Tuesday on WNED-TV, which generally shows “Frontline” a week later.

It’s not as if “League of Denial” came out of nowhere. ESPN caused a stir in August when it backed away from the project after a 15-month involvement. Critics said ESPN, which pays the NFL $2 billion a year for the rights to Monday Night Football, bowed to pressure from the league.

The league had good reasons to be fearful. The Fainaru brothers nailed the NFL with an exhaustive and compelling look at the league’s denial of mounting scientific evidence into concussions during Paul Tagliabue’s tenure as commissioner.

If you were wondering why the NFL would pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit filed by some 4,200 former players, you’ll understand more when you see what the authors uncovered in interviews with more than 200 scientists, doctors, ex-players and their families.

The answer becomes obvious. The NFL, which has networks falling over each other to fill its coffers, probably looked at three quarters of a billion as hush money. They had no desire to see the lawsuit go to court, where many of the Fainarus’ sources would be called to testify.

The NFL can’t have wanted the public to hear testimony from Dr. Bennet Omalu, the first doctor to uncover the evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of former football players. CTE is a degenerative disease that can only be diagnosed after death in people with a history of multiple concussions and other head injuries. In the book, Omalu claims he was urged by NFL doctors to stop investigating brain damage in former NFL players.

I can’t imagine the league wanted to be reminded that Tagliabue had accused reporters of “pack journalism” for looking into the concussion issue. Or that the former commissioner had impaneled a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee (note the word ‘mild’) and picked Dr. Elliott Pellman as its leader – even though Pellman was a rheumatologist with no background in brain research.

Pellman’s committee published 16 studies, which determined that there had been no serious brain injuries connected to the NFL, and that there was no apparent danger in sending players back into a game after they had suffered a concussion.

The league probably had no interest in hearing from Ann McKee, the Boston University researcher who has made the study of brain trauma her life’s work. In the book, McKee talks about being ridiculed and bullied when she presented her findings to NFL doctors. The facts eventually won out.

McKee has the brains of 61 former NFL players housed in a freezer outside Boston. As of last year, she said she had examined the brains of 34 former NFL players; 33 had signs of CTE. McKee predicted that a “shockingly” high percentage of NFL players would eventually have it.

Luckily, the NFL has come around and made head injuries a major issue. The league has stiffened penalties for head hits and legislated better protections for players, from equipment to more vigilant concussion protocols.

The players I spoke with Wednesday all talked about their love for the game. They’re more cognizant of the dangers of concussions. But as Marrone said, the sport has its risks and rewards. There are great competitive and financial rewards for an NFL player, and they willingly take the risks.

There will always be denial in NFL players, a need to block out the essential perils of the sport, including possible brain damage from concussions. I could sense it in the players, some of whom seemed blithely ignorant of “League of Denial.” In the end, as the lawsuit charged, NFL players have to be protected from themselves.

“All the information out there now says if you get a concussion and continue to play and suffer more brain trauma, that’s when it gets really serious,” said safety Jim Leonhard, who has suffered at least two concussions. “So I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. It took way too long to get there.”

Check out “League of Denial,” and you’ll begin to understand why.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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