WNED should have reversed its call to delay documentary on football-related concussions - The Buffalo News
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WNED should have reversed its call to delay documentary on football-related concussions

You have questions. I have answers.

Why did WNED-TV decide to delay airing the controversial two-hour Frontline documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” for a week?

It airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on the local PBS station.

As explained by Megan M. Wagner, the director of corporate communications for the local PBS stations, WNED-TV uses September for its membership campaign instead of PBS’ normal month of August. That delays the September episodes of PBS series, which was the case for this Frontline episode.

I doubt the local PBS station was all that concerned that the program could have been viewed online since not many would view it that way and the Canadian market – which is extremely important to Channel 17 – can’t access the website. But delaying it was a bad call nonetheless.

WNED should have taken into account that “League of Denial” would be discussed beyond the sports world this week and the delay would aggravate viewers who wanted to know what the talk was all about.

I heard some former players on talk radio say that the revelations in the program about the NFL’s long-term defense against credible scientific evidence that playing football can result in a higher incident of dementia and other brain issues wouldn’t have stopped them from playing a sport they love.

That’s somewhat understandable because football has been in their blood since childhood.

The bigger question is whether the revelations now will lead parents to prevent their young children from playing football.

“Denial” certainly may cause viewers to never look at pro football the same way they have been for decades. It reminds us about the price NFL players pay to entertain us and should be must-see TV for NFL players and for parents of potential football players.

Based on the book by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wadu, “Denial” is a devastating portrait of how the NFL played defense against doctors who believed they found a credible link between playing getting their heads pounded and a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

There are some local angles. Former Buffalo Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas is interviewed briefly about the violence of the sport; the death of former Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strzelczyk of West Seneca (who had CTE) is mentioned; and the exploits of a disgraced former Buffalo Bills running back on Monday Night Football are highlighted to illustrate the popularity of a sport and business that makes billions of dollars annually.

According to “Denial,” the NFL and commissioners Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell spent close to 20 years protecting the sport and those billions by primarily relying on team and league doctors who told them what they wanted to hear despite overwhelming scientific evidence piling up about the damage that playing the sport had done to the brains of concussed players.

One of the league’s so-called experts was nicknamed “Dr. No” because he kept on answering no when asked if there was any link between concussions and brain damage.

The league also vilified the first doctor who found a link, Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian-born expert who didn’t know who the late Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster was but saw what the sport had done to his brain and his life. (Omalu also examined Strzelczyk’s brain.)

In addition, the league questioned the findings of another prominent doctor, Ann McKee, who found the same link between NFL pounding and brain damage in several players. McKee notes in the film that of the 46 players who died that were examined, 45 had CTE.

I’m not surprised the hard-hitting documentary details the NFL’s refusal to accept anything until it had a gun to its head in the form of a class-action lawsuit filed by former players who believed the league knew all about the link and never told them. The NFL settled the suit before the start of this season for $765 million, though the NFL admitted nothing.

I became aware of the concussion crisis years before the first reports on it. I was on an airplane and sat next to Ollie Matson Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame running back. I asked him how his dad was doing. Ollie Jr. said his dad had some form of dementia (he later wrote me that it was CTE and not dementia) and then named several former NFL players with similar issues.

The conversation validated my decision 15 years ago not to allow my older son to play high school football against his wishes. As a former sports writer who had been down on the field for Bills games, I saw the incredible violence of the game at a much different level than in the stands. I didn’t want to wonder if my son wasn’t going to get up after plays or if he suffered an injury that wouldn’t be known for years. Soccer seemed a safer choice, though it has its own perils.

I’m sure “League of Denial” may give some parents the same concerns I had 15 years ago.

In a way, the most devastating comment in “Denial” comes from former New York Giants great Harry Carson at the film’s end.

“I think everyone now has a better sense of what damage you can get from playing football,” said Carson. “The NFL has given everybody 765 million reasons why you don’t want to play football.”

Why has Channel 2 stopped carrying the lottery drawings?

Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner explained the station’s contract expired and the drawing was dropped after 12 years.

“It took a lot of time away from our newscasts,” said Toellner. “We didn’t renew it and apparently no one else is interested in picking it up. We still put the numbers up immediately after they are drawn on the air and on the website.”

I’m sure I’ll soon be asked what happened to Saturday’s scheduled airing of “48 Hours” about the murder conviction of a Buffalo native. CBS postponed it in favor of another murder case decided Friday.

email: apergament@buffnews.com

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