Arrow-right Camera


Sun., Oct. 13, 2013

Smart Bombs: NFL sacks inconvenient truth

I grew up loving football, frequently pedaling my Stingray to Skaggs to buy the trading cards. The drugstore had only the American Football League version, so I became an expert on those players. Ask 9-year-old me about halfback Paul Lowe, and I could tell you he was 6 feet 1 inch, 205 pounds, out of Oregon State. His running mate was Keith Lincoln, No. 22, from Wazzu. It was like flashcards, and I was a highly motivated learner.

Hadl to Alworth. Parilli to Cappelletti. Lamonica to Biletnikoff. These were the lyrics of my childhood.

I still watch a fair amount of football, but the obsession has passed. After watching the Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” it might be relegated to guilty pleasure.

From the death of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who was 50 going on 70, to the recent suicide of San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, the league has downplayed the reality that all those collisions can wreak a lifetime of havoc on the brain.

You could say players of a brutal sport should’ve known what they were in for, but they certainly couldn’t have learned it from the NFL, even though it has studied the matter for nearly 20 years. A league that’s gone crazy pink over breast cancer awareness has thrown a blanket over its own disease.

Like Big Tobacco or the powerful interests that deny global warming, the NFL enlisted its own experts who – surprise, surprise – concluded the science just isn’t there yet to show that the violence could lead to a lifelong mental disorder. According to one of the “scientific” papers produced by the NFL’s experts, players who suffered concussions could safely re-enter games. This, of course, is dangerously wrong, and football on all levels has now outlawed the practice.

This denial of science echoes what’s occurring with global warming, where all the major academies agree it’s a problem. Dr. James Hansen is a former scientist with NASA who is known for conducting important research and issuing warnings. For this he has been vilified by the forces that would lose money if we actually did something. The same has happened with the pioneering medical experts on football-related brain disorders.

Dr. Bennet Omalu is the doctor who studied Mike Webster’s brain and deduced that he suffered from a malady that would become known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressively degenerative disease of the brain caused by repeated collisions – the kind of clashes that occur routinely in the trenches. Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University has found CTE in 45 of 46 players’ brains she has examined. The NFL blitzed both doctors’ reputations.

The science isn’t on the side of the NFL, which is probably why it refused to comment to Frontline. But the league has money. Lots of money. ESPN has a $2 billion contract with the league. Reporter Steve Fainaru, who works for ESPN and contributed to the Frontline documentary, says, “So they’re basically paying $120 million per game. That’s like the budget of a Harry Potter movie.”

ESPN needs a lot of advertising and viewers to make a profitable return on such a massive investment. The self-anointed World Wide Leader in Sports was at one point assisting with the Frontline documentary but was pressured by the NFL to back out, according to the New York Times.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, University of Idaho alumnus Michael Kirk, the producer and director of the Frontline documentary, notes that under last month’s $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former athletes – some suffering from dementia, depression or Alzheimer’s – NFL officials never have to divulge what they knew or when they knew it.

The strategy behind that settlement is the hope that the truth will quickly slip your mind.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

There are seven comments on this story »