“League of Denial”–A Reflection
I watched “League of Denial” on Sunday, the Frontline documentary about the concussion/CTE crisis in football and how the NFL has either downplayed the issue or tried to undermine the credibility of the science. Unsurprisingly, the NFL comes across looking pretty bad: rather than tackling (pun intended) the issue early on, they hired unqualified doctors from their camp to consider the issue, and these doctors published half-baked pseudo-science that made concussions seem like no problem at all. Even today, while the league has done much more to acknowledge the problem, commissioner Roger Goodell can’t find enough ways to hem and haw when a question is raised about the connection between football concussions and CTE. It’s depressing to watch a business who thrives on the bodies of its workers act so callously towards real problems with their sport, but the documentary is also a sobering reflection on what role football has in American society–and what its future role looks like.
I came into the documentary thinking that watching it would convince me that football is doomed in the long-run but I ended thinking almost the opposite: not only will the NFL weather this crisis (it pretty much has with its recent legal settlement) but that people will continue watching football devotedly for decades to come. While the concussion problem is real, it is neither so prevalent or immediate so as to strike significant concern in people’s hearts. The full effects of playing football on a person’s brain usually only becomes evident many years after their career is over, when they have long left the public eye. And that’s if they suffer from mental problems at all. Many people have played football for years and have lived long, healthy and productive lives without any obvious mental side effects. Because the effects are so delayed and so unpredictable, making the connection between a football game happening RIGHT NOW and the potential mental health of that game’s players two or three decades down the road requires more moral imagination than I think we’re usually capable of. In many respects, the science behind football-caused CTE is similar to man-made climate change: the basic science is convincing, but the effects are so removed from the actions that cause them, and the actual effects that will come are so difficult to predict, that the problem only inspires minor reform efforts. It is hard to rally ourselves to a problem that seems so distant and variable.
That’s why some of the documentary’s attempts to make the problem seem real felt hollow. They tell the story of Troy Aikman getting a concussion during an NFC championship game and repeating the same conversation with his agent every five minutes in the hospital as if it was evidence of a deep structural problem with the sport. It’s a frightening story, but concussions like these happen in every sport, and in many other parts of life, like car accidents. The real threat is not any one concussion like Aikman suffered, but the many repeated hits over weeks and weeks and years and years of practices and games. One thing the documentary does not stress enough (it’s fairly light on the actual science of CTE) is that it doesn’t take getting a concussion to cause brain damage. There are “subconcussive” hits that register trauma on the brain without knocking the lights completely out. Thus even as the NFL and the NCAA make rules against “targeting” player’s heads and minimizing contact with the helmet, these changes are obviously cosmetic: the real concern are not the big hits but the many repeated smaller blows that usually occur along the line of scrimmage and that are an integral part of the game.
And that’s another depressing reason why football fandom is unlikely to be affected by the CTE crisis: it usually emerges in players people don’t really care about, like linemen, linebackers, and corner backs. Football loves touting the prowess and valor of its “unsung heores” in the “trenches,” and commentators will occasionally remind viewers there is a reason the left tackle is one of the highest paid players on the team, but these players are often interchangeable to most fans. Cynical as it sounds, the public has already gotten comfortable that these players, who have to bulk up the most in the first place, will break down their bodies playing the sport much more than will “skilled” positions–your QBs, wide receivers, etc. There’s a great moment in the documentary when Steve Young expresses concern for his “linemen brothers” and “running back brothers.” He gets it: all players are not equally vulnerable to CTE, and those that are more vulnerable are less likely to receive the attention they deserve.
So what does the future of football look like? Fandom will continue, but I think there will be steady decline in youth participation, particularly in areas where football is not the major sport. Fans might not mind watching other people put their brains on their lines, but fewer and fewer will say the same for their kids (the top doctor on the issue says, personally, no kid under 14 should be playing tackle football). Kids and youth tackle football will probably be banned in some areas but not in others, and star athletes from those areas will probably abandon football entirely for other sports. I suspect we will see a class-regional divide in this regard, with upper-middle to upper-class families pulling their kids first. So I expect the CTE crisis to alter the make-up of the players on the field, but not so much the people in the stands. All of this goes out the window, though, if insurance companies become liable for CTE suffered by football players and high schools or universities cannot afford the premiums. That is the most likely case of football being blown up in an instant, though I’m surprised to rarely hear that possibility discussed (maybe it’s not a possibility?). Otherwise, I think we’re in for a long evolution of the game that will lead to a lot of cognitive dissonance on the part of the fans, but a dissonance many will bear just fine.
The best discussion I’ve read on the subject of the documentary is here.