The NFL might have dished out a $765 million lawsuit for concussion-related lawsuits from more than 4,500 former players, but the nine-figure settlement wasn’t going to erase the league’s history on the issue. Not even close.
On Tuesday, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis,” the FRONTLINE documentary based on the reporting of ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru's new book, presented arguably the most comprehensive history lesson on the NFL’s concussion epidemic.
“League of Denial” maps out the decades-long debate on the matter that brain diseases, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, among former football players directly resulted from playing football.
While it remains unclear about what the greater ramifications could be from the documentary’s systematic breakdown of the NFL’s denial of the long-term effects of concussions, the personal stories from the film will likely resonate for the long run.
America Tonight looks at some of the deepest reflections from “League of Denial.”
"[Webster] had a lot of pain, and he hasn’t slept for days. So he asked me, said, 'Sunny, can you tase me?' I’m, like, 'What does that mean?' So he pulls out this stun gun and goes 'Bzz, bzz.' I’m, like, 'Mike, that’s not healthy.' He said, 'But I haven’t slept nothing.' He said, 'All you got to do is tase me right here.' And I’m, like, 'OK.' I don’t know, you know, he’s my hero, I’m going to do whatever he tells me. So I tased him, and he goes—and he goes to sleep. I’m, like, 'Wow!'”
– Sunny Jani, a friend of Mike Webster.
Sexism in the boardroom
"I don’t want to get into the sexism too much, but sexism plays a big role when you’re a doctor of my age who’s come up in the ranks with a lot of male doctors. Sexism is part of my life. And getting in that room with a bunch of males who already thought they knew all the answers— more sexism. I mean, you know, it was, like, 'Oh, the girl talked. Now we can get back into some serious business.'"
– Dr. Ann McKee, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, describing the role sexism potentially played during a May 2009 meeting with NFL doctors.
The first discovery
"I said, 'Let me fix this brain. Let me spend time with this brain. There’s something— something doesn’t match.' And I remember the technician telling me, he said, 'What are you fixing this brain for? That brain is normal.'”
-Dr. Bennet Omalu, then a medical examiner at the Allegheny County (Pa.) coroner's office, after examining the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster in 2002.
'I used to be' Mike Webster
"Maybe the saddest I ever heard him say was when someone saw my dad and said, 'Aren’t you Mike Webster?' And he said, 'I used to be.' I think that really was how he felt because he really was. He wasn’t the same person. It was— it was like, you know, a picture of him that was just shattered into a million pieces."
– Colin Webster on his dad, Mike Webster.
The forgotten game
"He looked at me and he said, 'Leigh, where am I?' And I said, 'Well, you’re in the hospital.' And he said, 'Well, why am I here?' And I said, 'Because you suffered a concussion today.' And he said, 'Well, who did we play?' And I said, 'The 49ers.' And he said, 'Did we win?' 'Yes, you won.' 'Did I play well?' 'Yes, you played well.' 'Did— what does that— and so what’s that mean?' 'It means you’re going to the Super Bowl.'"
-Sports agent Leigh Steinberg on his meeting with one of his clients, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, shortly after he suffered a concussion in the 1994 NFC Championship Game.
The human car crash
"In football, one has to expect that almost every play of every game and every practice, they’re going to be hitting their heads against each other. That’s the nature of the game. Those things seem to happen around 1,000 to 1,500 times a year. Each time that happens, it’s around 20G or more. That’s the equivalent of driving a car at 35 miles per hour into a brick wall 1,000 to 1,500 times per year."
-Dr. Robert Stern, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
The end of football?
"And the NFL doctor at some point said to me, 'Bennet, do you know the implications of what you’re doing?' I looked. He was on my left. I said, 'Yeah, I think I do.' He said, 'No, you don’t.' So we continued talking, talking. At some point, he interrupted me again, 'Bennet, do you think you know the implications of what you’re doing?' I said, 'I think I do. I don’t know.' He said, 'No, you don’t.' So we continued talking again...Then a third time, he interrupted me, and I turned to him and I said, 'OK, why don’t you tell me what implications are?' He said, 'OK, I’ll tell you.' He said, 'If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.'”
– Dr. Bennet Omalu recalling his private meeting with an NFL doctor about CTE in former football players.
"People have suggested strongly to me that [former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue] picked up a lot of techniques about how to aggressively defend things that could turn out to be class actions. You know, the NFL has had this strategy of going nuclear every time it goes to court because the first time you ever lose, you open up the floodgates to potential billions of dollars of damage."
– ESPN The Magazine senior writer Peter Keating on former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. [Full disclosure: I worked with Keating during my time at ESPN The Magazine.]
The NFL, the new big tobacco?
"The NFL sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-’90s, when they kept saying, 'No, there’s no link between smoking and damage to your health or ill health effects.'”
– Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) addressing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a Congressional hearing in October 2009.
'That's the sacrifice'
"You have to sacrifice your body. You have to sacrifice years down the line. When we are 50, 40 years old, we probably won’t be able to walk. That’s the sacrifice that you take to play this game."
– Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau during a production of NFL Films. After his 2012 suicide, it was found that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the chronic brain damage that has been found in a number of deceased former NFL players.