League of Denial is as much a documentary about warning signs as it is about concussions in the National Football League. The two-hour Frontline investigative report premiered Tuesday night on PBS, and like any significant study, it brought forth as many questions as it answered.
Given the lead up to the airing of the documentary – most notably ESPN’s opting out of its original partnership with PBS publicly due to a lack of editorial control, but reportedly due to pressure from its already existing partnerships with the NFL – the content wasn’t surprising. It presented a convincing mix of anecdotes and research to build a case against the league for what appears at first to be a simple ignorance to the dangers of head trauma in football, but ultimately transforms into willful negligence. Somehow, the tone of the documentary is rarely accusatory, and almost always educational. The feature program leads viewers to ask their own questions rather than overwhelming them with its own conclusions.
While the format created an engaging program, it also created something about which it’s difficult to write. I don’t want to merely summarize what led to Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster’s death in 2002 or create a bastardized version of a white paper on how chronic traumatic encephalopathy affects the brain. A compacted amalgamation of the documentary would trivialize the issue more than add anything.
Besides, this viewer wasn’t left thinking about a laundry list of offenses that the NFL perpetrated. Instead, I thought about how we consider harm, and how warnings about unknown dangers affect the decisions we make. We often portray our response to harm as being binary. I don’t exceed the speed limit while driving because it would increase the likelihood of serious injury if I were to get into a collision. I don’t smoke cigarettes because it could cause lung cancer or heart disease. I don’t play Russian roulette because it would increase the chances of my demise. It is harmful, so I don’t do it.
But in reality, outside of the most extreme examples, this isn’t the case. Unless we’re dome bound in a fictional utopia, we engage in harmful activities all of the time. Without being conscious of it, we frequently calculate risk and decide to engage in behavior that could lead to uncertain consequences. We do this for our livelihood (transporting ourselves to our job), our pleasure (one more glass of wine) and even our own amusement (skydiving).
This form of self-governing weighs heavily on the issue of concussions in football. It’s often suggested that football players are aware that they’re engaging in dangerous behavior by plying their trade on a football field. What is now being reported – by investigations like League of Denial – is that the NFL was negligent in ensuring its players were as aware of those dangers as not only possible, but necessary. Furthermore, if we’re going to convict the NFL of failure to protect its athletes, we have to admit to expecting the league to recognize something that’s incredibly difficult to quantify: the culture.
There is a mind set among those who play or played the game that they’re something of a warrior/athlete hybrid. This is largely celebrated by fans who contribute to the notion more than they would care to admit. If players were made fully aware of all of the dangers of playing football, it’s uncertain whether or not they would abstain. Even those who have sued the NFL for its role in allowing head injuries to flourish aren’t entirely sure if they would avoid doing it all over again knowing what they know now.
So, by shaming the NFL, we’re expecting the league to protect its athletes from themselves. That’s not as absurd as it might seem. Safety policies in many workplaces are built around making as few assumptions as possible about the knowledge and awareness of its employees.
However, the buck doesn’t stop with the NFL. After all, the $10-billion enterprise is made possible by a great many people willing to spend relatively small amounts of money to enjoy the entertainment it produces. We are the great many, and we typically celebrate the violent collisions that occur on the field and we applaud individual players willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the team we support winning the game.
Suddenly, the warning signs that League of Denial conjure aren’t about personal risk, but about the dangers facing others. As we’ve already explored, we’re often willing to face some risk in our personal lives to achieve an array of objectives ranging from necessary to superfluous. But what happens when that risk is transferred to someone else? How do we respond when our behavior puts others at risk? How do we reconcile what we determine to be an appropriate risk for ourselves with what we decide it is for others?
And here’s the most disturbing question that we end up asking ourselves at the end of League of Denial: If we decide we wouldn’t play football because of the inherent risk laid bare by the documentary, how do we justify our indirect participation in others facing that exact same risk? How can we be entertained by a product that results in the horror stories presented to us? How do we acquit ourselves from blame for lining the pockets of those who have harmed others by acting in negligence?
These questions aren’t meant to exempt the NFL from performing due diligence when it comes to player safety, it’s to point out our own role as an enabler.
The reviews of the Frontline investigation have routinely questioned what could have been if ESPN’s partnership remained intact. The consensus is that their coverage would have elicited a greater response than what public television is capable. I wonder though – no matter the size of the so-called response – if the end result would be at all different.
Challenging the behavior of others is always easier than altering one’s own. For this, League of Denial seems an apt title. It accurately describes the league, its players and its fans.