PBS's 'League of Denial' NFL Concussion Documentary Is Chilling But Will Anything Change?

A film about the NFL's brain injury problem is chilling, but some doubt it will have a real impact.


A new documentary investigates the NFL’s concussion problem.

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That the NFL has a brain injury problem on its hands is by no means news.

But "League of Denial," PBS Frontline's investigative documentary based on a book of the same name, got an extra boost of attention when PBS's partner in the project, ESPN, backed away from the film. That reportedly followed pressure from the NFL, with which the sports network has a $2 billion per year broadcasting contract. (Both the NFL and the ESPN denied the claims).

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Judging by the reception of the documentary - which aired Tuesday and is streaming online - the NFL has plenty to worry about. Critics called the film "eye-opening," "superb, daunting," and "powerful and provocative." It starts with the tale of Steelers center Mike Webster, who exhibited erratic behavior and mental anguish before his 2002 death, and traces the NFL's alleged neglect of the long-term consequences of brain injuries among the players, bringing in the voices of their families and doctors that the film says the league sought to silence. The NFL refused to participate in the documentary.


"League of Denial" makes its case convincingly, but the ultimate question (one many reviewers noted) remains: Would it really change anything in the $9 billion industry?

Steve Fainaru, one of the ESPN journalists behind the film, told New England sports site NESN, "It will be very hard for people to take the NFL seriously at this point when it comes to the science of concussion because of the history that we document."

New York Magazine's Dan Amira admitted that watching football after screening the documentary "wasn't the same," but acknowledged that parents of young players may pose the ultimate threat to the NFL. Characters in the film itself compare the NFL to Big Tobacco, which met its day of reckoning in court in the 1990s after long denying the connection between cigarettes and cancer.

The NFL appears to have been on its own crusade over the last few months to counter the accusations made by "League of Denial."

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In August, the league secured a $765 million lawsuit settlement with 4,500 former players without acknowledging any wrongdoing or assuming any liability -- a move some have suggested was timed to the release of "League of Denial" (and in fact served as the film's final act). Furthermore NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the film's villain, sent a letter to fans outlining all the initiatives the NFL has taken to address brain injuries.

"Having read the read the commissioner's letter to fans, he talks about everything moving forward," says Dennis Deninger, a Syracuse University professor of sports communication and a former Emmy-award winning producer for ESPN and elsewhere. Much of the film's narrative is grounded in the past, with plenty of grainy footage and long-retired names. "As an observer, this just played right into the commissioner's strategy," Deninger says. "The league is looking forward and we have these people looking backward."

Other critics have questioned the changes the "League of Denial" could render. Dan Diamond at Forbes doubted the impact that the "excellent" film would have. "Name the last PBS documentary that changed American sports, or business, or law," he wrote, pointing out that little new information about the NFL's role was actually revealed and furthermore, that PBS has a limited viewership. A little more than 2 million people tuned in to watch the Tuesday's broadcast, a 50 percent increase of the typical Frontline audience, but by no means blockbuster.

Documentaries have a storied past of changing the conversation on cultural, political and social issues. "There's a long tradition of this and there's a forward-looking tradition of this," says Alice Elliott, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and professor at New York University. She cites the documentaries like "Bag It," about the environmental effects of plastic bags, "Scouts' Honor" about the Boy Scouts policy towards homosexuality, and "The Invisible War," about rape in the military, as being just a few of many that have influenced movements.