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"League of Denial" is must-see TV for parents, players

By Alan Pergament 

While thousands of Western New Yorkers were getting depressed watching quarterback Geno Smith lead the New York Jets to a last-second win over Atlanta on ESPN's Monday Night Football, I was watching a press preview of Frontline's compelling documentary: "League of Denial: The NFL’s
Concussion Crisis."

It airs at 9 tonight nationally, but WNED-TV isn't playing it until 8 p.m. Oct. 15. If you watch it, you may never look at pro football the same way you have been on Sundays and Mondays for decades.

It should be must-see TV for NFL players and for parents of children who are considering playing football.

WNYers love their football.

The Bills didn't play Sunday, but the local rating for the Denver Broncos' 51-48 win over Dallas was the highest-rated for a non-Bills game on Channel 4 in years.

"Denial" reminds us again the price many NFL players pay to entertain us.

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

At one point, a politician is shown comparing the NFL's refusal to acknowledge a link between the sport and brain damage to Big Tobacco's refusal to accept a link between smoking and cancer.

It seems to be an apt comparison.

There are some local angles. Former Buffalo Bill 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 brain 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. (Dr. Omalu also examined Strzelczyk's brain.)

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

I'm not going to deny that I'm not surprised by how hard-hitting the documentary is in detailing 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.

Many years ago, I was on an airplane headed to Los Angeles when I sat next to Ollie Matson Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame running back. We struck up a conversation and 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 who also had similar issues. This was years before the NFL was dealing with its concussion crisis and reporting on it had magnified.

The conversation validated my earlier decision not to allow my older son to play high school football against his wishes. As a former sportswriter who had been down on the field for Bills games, I saw the incredible violence of the game at a much different level than anyone in the stands. I didn't ever  want to be in the stands wondering 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.

"League of Denial" may cause other parents who haven't been paying attention to concussion issues to question whether they should allow their children to play football at any level.

In a way, the most devastating comment in the documentary may have come from former New York Giant great Harry Carson at the end of the film.

"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."

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