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Case Number 26747: Small Claims Court

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League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis

PBS // 2013 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // December 28th, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Daryl Loomis was known for catching passes with his face.

The Charge

"Dr. McKee has now examined the brains of 46 former NFL players and 45 had CTE."

The Case

I am a massive football fan and have been since I was a small child. When I was three years old, my mother gave my brother and me a catalog to pick out NFL pajamas for Christmas. I chose the Denver Broncos (probably because "horsies!") and have been a diehard fan ever since. My all-time favorite player is not John Elway, as many assume, but Karl Mecklenburg, a hard hitting linebacker who played his entire career with the Broncos, from 1983 to 1994.

I mention the "Albino Rhino," as he was known, because during a career in which I watched him cream more quarterbacks than I could count, he suffered at least a dozen concussions and today, at 53 years old, is now experiencing slurred speech and memory loss. Quite likely, he is suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a cognitive disease known to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

CTE has long been acknowledged as an affliction suffered by boxers (and, apparently, steeplechase riders, which I can't wrap my head around), but football players were thought safe from such debilitation. That was until former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster killed himself in 2002 at 50 years old after years of erratic and violent behavior. His brain was riddled with what's known as the Tau protein, a sure sign of the disease. Since then, concussions and their effects on both players and the game of football have become the most talked about issues in football.

In League of Denial, Frontline, in conjunction with ESPN (who took their name off of it for still murky reasons), takes a long, hard look at how much the National Football League knew about the dangers of concussions and how much they denied, to themselves, to players, and to the public, that the sport everybody loves so much might actually be a public health hazard.

The problem isn't that adults, in full knowledge and consent, aren't free to do whatever they want. It's that not only were NFL players uninformed of the dangers when the NFL, in a study they commissioned, acknowledged the dangers themselves, it's the effect on kids. Down here in Texas, as can be seen from its fairly accurate representation in Friday Night Lights, is a pretty big deal. A lot of kids here can line up in a three-point stance before they can read and, as soon as they're there, they're taking hits to their still soft and developing heads. When an 18-year-old who died after a concussion was discovered to have the disease, you know things are looking bad.

Frontline has never been a particularly artful series, but it always makes its point in a clear and concise manner, and it's no different in League of Denial. The evidence is exhaustive that the NFL willfully shut out evidence that might suggest the game is dangerous and tried to discredit conflicting science. As they were compared to in the Congress hearings, the NFL and, specifically, Commissioner Roger Goodell, sound much like the Tobacco executives did when the dangers of cigarettes became blatantly clear.

Interviews with ex-players, doctors, and journalists tell a sad story of pain and greed. There is, of course, still questions out there about CTE and concussions, but science is progressive and, even if the data remain imperfect, it's vital to continue working toward that so people like me, who don't really want to watch people beat themselves into oblivion, can continue to watch the game they love without the thought, that every hard hit comes one step closer to leaving your favorite player a drooling mess.

League of Denial comes to DVD from Paramount in a perfectly average release. The 1.78:1 image is strong enough; it looks pretty much the same as it did when it aired. Archival footage is obviously rougher than new video interviews, but it's exactly what I expected to see. Sound, too, comes as expected. It's a simple stereo mix that represents the plethora of interviews just fine. There are no extras on the disc.

As a conflicted football fan, League of Denial is a sad reminder that the game I love so much is a clear and present danger to the people who play. A knee or a shoulder is one thing, but if parents become afraid to send their kids on the field, and I truly believe that they will, it won't take long for football to die, at least in the form we enjoy it now. It might sound far-fetched, but it wasn't so long ago that boxing was America's most popular sport, and now where is it. If you missed League of Denial when it initially aired on PBS, it's worth seeking out, but there's no reason to buy this bare bones disc; just wait for a replay on television. It'll come.

The Verdict

The NFL is as guilty as it could be. Frontline, as usual, is free to go.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Sports
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


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