The Brain and the Brutal Ballet

If you missed League of Denial last night on Frontline, try catching it. Well worth the watch. Some highlights:

The Autopsy That Changed Football

Well, it hasn’t changed football yet, but it might and it should.

Growing up in Nigeria, Dr. Bennet Omalu knew next to nothing about American football. He didn’t watch the games, he didn’t know the teams, and he certainly didn’t know the name Mike Webster.

That changed in 2002 when Omalu was assigned to perform an autopsy on the legendary Steelers center. Webster had died at 50, but to Omalu, he looked far older. Football had taken a punishing toll on his body. It was Omalu’s job to measure the damage.

As a neuropathologist, Omalu was especially interested in the brain. Inside Mike Webster’s brain, he’d make a startling discovery: a disease never previously identified in football players. The condition, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was the first hard evidence that playing football could cause permanent brain damage.


Through interviews with former players, scientists and other experts on the concussion issue, it examines what the NFL knew about the risks of such injuries, and when it knew it.


Live Chat  transcript with author-journalists Steve Fainaru,  Mark Fainaru-Wada, producer Mike Wiser , and Mike Webster’s son Garrett Webster.


Major Takeaways from “League of Denial: NFL’s Concussion Crisis’ PBS Documentary

Tuesday night marked what could be a landmark evening for the NFL and its future, as PBS’ Frontline aired its much-anticipated documentary, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.

Helmed by reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who wrote a book of the same name, League of Denial exposes a decade-plus of NFL malfeasance and negligence when it comes to concussions and brain injury research.

The film itself also became a lightning rod of controversy. Just weeks before it was due to air, ESPN, which initially partnered with Frontline and who employ Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, pulled its name from the documentary.

Reports surfaced that the NFL pressured ESPN—specifically its parent company, Disney—to end its relationship with Frontline due to the contents of the film. ESPN, of course, currently holds broadcasting rights to the NFL’s Monday Night Football package.

This Book Will Stop You Watching Football 

“League of Denial’ likely won’t change a thing



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2 thoughts on “The Brain and the Brutal Ballet

  1. Interesting controversy around the film. We can only assume since PBS actually aired it that the Koch brothers have no particular opinion on the subject. Maybe they’re soccer fans?

    1. Emma,

      Yep. Hard to say. I’ve hated to see the Libertarian drift (the Koch influence) at PBS – it’s most noticeable at the News Hour. Frontline still seems to be eking along with genuine attempts at investigative documentary. I was pretty surprised they did air it all given its critique of the NFL amounts to a damning indictment of the the private sector and big business. Ultimately proving yet again that the private sector should never be left to its own devices and or to its own judgement to decide much of anything at all. It took Congressional testimony just to minimally nudge the NFL.

      I suppose what surprised me most (but shouldn’t have) are the ruthless depths that the NFL would sink in order to protract their cover-up; not only in demolishing Omalu’s career and his life, but also the viciously racist way they went about doing it – discrediting his work as “voodoo science.” Likewise, I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) by the NFL’s blatantly sexist dismissal of Ann McKee’s research. Neither of those reactions should have been surprising given NFL culture, but more pointedly, what’s at stake – loss of a multi-billion dollar industry. Unfortunately, the NFL has shown that it is willing to forsake the brains and health of its players and the brains and health of America’s youth for profit and avarice alone. That, too, should come as no surprise. I have to say, though, I can’t fathom it.

      A couple of more surprises – one, I’m surprised that it would come as any surprise at all that repetitive subconcussive trauma would cause permanent brain injury. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me (again it shouldn’t have been) is that McKee identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of 18 and 21 year old football players. That’s frightening. One thing I didn’t catch definitively was whether or not CTE was diagnosable only postmortem. I believe, at the current research stage CTE is only detectable by autopsy, but I’m not certain of that.

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