League of Denial fails to tell the whole story on concussions

We saw this one coming last November, when Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada dusted off the Mike Webster disability case and incorrectly sold it as a smoking gun.

League of Denial, the much-hyped look at the NFL’s failure to acknowledge the concussion issue on a more timely basis, likewise fails to tell the whole story about the concussion crisis.  Not a single time in the two-hour documentary does the voice-of-God Frontline narrator or the Fainaru brothers or any of the persons interviewed ever mention the letters N, F, L, P, and A.

The NFLPA is the NFL Players Association.  It’s the union that represents all players.  It is, legally and in many practical ways, the players.

The NFLPA had three members on the six-person disability board that granted Webster benefits for brain damage in response to his 1999 claim.  It was, despite being consistently characterized as the league’s disability board, an even split of responsibility between the NFL and the NFLPA.

So if the decision in the Webster case to link brain damage to football put the league on notice of the dangers of head trauma, the NFLPA was on notice of it, too.

This same dynamic applies to the rightfully-maligned Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.  Their work was shoddy, and their efforts at times were laughable.  For too many years and in too many people, the human instinct of self-preservation overcame the human aspiration to do the right thing.

But the documentary never mentions that the NFLPA had a direct role in the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.  How is that not worth at least a fleeting mention in a two-hour, no-commercials program?

At a time when some are lamenting the fact that the settlement of the concussion lawsuits will prevent the public from knowing what the NFL knew and when the NFL knew it, those same questions will never be answered regarding the NFLPA.  What did the NFLPA know, when did the NFLPA know it, and why didn’t the NFLPA do a better job of protecting its men?

And why didn’t Frontline or the Fainarus mention in a two-hour documentary the NFLPA a single time?  It was as if the NFLPA didn’t even exist, that the players had no collective body with the power, ability, and position to shield them from wrongdoing.

The simple fact is that, under the late Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA was a major part of the problem.

Consider this quote from NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in his 2009 remarks to Congress:  “There is simply no justification for the NFL to have previously ignored or discredited Dr. [Bennet] Omalu and others with relevant, valid research.  For far too long, our former players were left adrift; as I emphasized at the last hearing, we were complicit in the lack of leadership and accountability, but that ends now.  I am here again to make it clear that our commitment is unwavering.”

Plenty of time was spent attacking the NFL for discrediting Dr. Omalu.  Wouldn’t it be relevant to mention that the head of the NFLPA told Congress that the NFL unfairly disregarded Dr. Omalu’s work?

Of course, that would have required Frontline and the Fainarus to acknowledge the NFLPA.  Which could have caused some in the audience to wonder what the NFLPA was or wasn’t doing when the NFL had its head in the sand about brain injuries.  Which may have disrupted the apparent agenda of Frontline and the Fainarus to blame the entire problem on the NFL.

Does the NFL deserve to be blamed?  Yes it does.  The efforts to ignore the truth about Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy were shameful and embarrassing, and the league hid the true risks of football from thousands of pro, college, and high school players.

But the NFL doesn’t deserve all of the blame, not when the NFLPA was in position to know just as much as the league did but apparently did nothing to protect the players who paid their membership dues, year in and year out.

Many will praise Frontline and the Fainarus, even though much of what they disclosed has been hiding in plain sight.  For their persistent and ongoing failure to ignore (by all appearances deliberately) the arguably more intriguing question of whether the NFLPA put its ongoing existence over the interests of its rank-and-file, Frontline and the Fainarus also deserve to be criticized.

It’ll be interesting to see if anyone else does, especially at the risk of blindly being dubbed a shill for the league office.

74 responses to “League of Denial fails to tell the whole story on concussions

  1. Great article. I heard Florio on AM 670 in Chicago this morning alluding to the same point about the failure of the documentary to mention the NFLPA. I watched the documentary last night and was appalled by the NFLs conduct. I was ignorant of the role of the NFLPA in the process. I’m grateful Florio has shed light on this fact.

  2. Concussions and players’ health issues are complex but they are being brought to the forefront more, I believe.

    The fact of the matter is that if you play any contact sport the chance of developing brain damage over time or brain related disorders, like dementia and CTE increases significantly.

    Young people and their parents and family should be thoroughly informed about the risks before signing up to play any contact sport.

  3. So are you sayin what is being presented is false, just because they also didn’t point blame at the NFLPA? While I agree it would have been nice had they also pointed out the NFLPA culpability, it doesn’t lessen the NFLs either. And let’s be honest the NFL is all about making as much money as possible for the owners as humanly possible. Are the players also rewarded well? Of course they are, but each and every decision is about the owners. That’s why the rules are geared towards the offense, that’s why they are talking about a team in London, and why they want to expand the season to 18 games and add more playoff teams. There’s plenty of blame to go around for this concussion fiasco, but to downplay this documentary simply because they didn’t share the blame with everyone is wrong. Hell let’s blame the players as well, because they kept going back out on the field, wanting to be warriors for their teams and play through these injuries. Let’s blame the fans for buying the videos the NFL promoted of “Big Hits” at least someone is finally willing to expose the NFL as the hypocrites they are. Touting player safety, but only for QB’s and receivers, while the whole time pushing for a longer season.

  4. Nice write-up Florio. I haven’t watched the 2 hour piece but it is good to see that there is more to the story. Sometimes that which is not said speaks volume about that which is said.

    It’s time the NFL, the NFLPA, and the helmet manufacturers come together and invest serious resources to design a safer helmet.

  5. Though I am reflexively pro-player and pro-labor, Mike, in this instance you have performed a valuable journalistic service by placing this “knowledge” issue in historical context.


  6. It’s a typical liberal “everything is the rich guys fault” book, it’s not a surprise that the union wasn’t mentioned.

    IMO, if the NFL was half as cold hearted as people make them out to be, they would of took this all the way to court, and won. Simply for the reasons listed above. The NFLPA was involved in all of the studies and committees that the NFL had. Legally, that means the players themselves were involved. It’s pretty hard to prove liability for non disclosure when you were represented in the information gathering.

  7. Like joe paterno, gene upshaws sudden death spared him much deserved public humiliation and scorn for being complicit in the destruction of so many lives

  8. Unfortunately I think Florio viewed this piece as a lawyer in court, and not as an audience member of a documentary. He says “Many will praise Frontline and the Fainarus, even though much of what they disclosed has been hiding in plain sight,” but the goal of documentary films often times isn’t to uncover some breaking news that nobody has ever heard… it’s to use “what’s in plain sight” to create a more interesting story that helps the generate public follow a storyline they’d like to know more about. Sure Florio probably knows a lot of this info, but how many of the 1 million people that tuned in did? I read this blog at least 5 times a day and am an AVID football fan and even I learned some things. Or at the very least it was a visually interesting learning tool that captivated my attention about an issue that I might not otherwise have known this much about. Which, in all honestly, is the entire point of a documentary. It’s a shame Florio couldn’t watch it for this (and it’s indeeded) purpose, instead choosing to view it like a lawyer trying to cast reasonable doubt.

  9. How do you make your money? Oh that’s right, by writing about pro football and by appearing on a network that paid big money to broadcast the games. . It’s fair to say given those facts you might not be the most objective person in the world on this issue.

  10. It appears to me the main purpose of the show was to show the NFL is making like the tobacco industry’s insistence there is no relationship between tobacco smoking and lung cancer.

    The NFL is using the same tactics.

    The show also didn’t dwell on the fact that the $765M settlement doesn’t really go very far when you do the math.

  11. Mike,

    You are right. NFL doesn’t deserve all the blame…Perhaps only 95% of the blame…Want to go after Gene Upshaw in his grave? What a pathetic argument….

  12. I’m glad you put that last statement in there, because that’s immediately what I thought about you when I saw the headline. I have given this plentiful thought and am writing a column about it from a well-rounded perspective. The NFL is in a tough position, but no one can definitively paint them as fully liable here for several obvious reasons.

  13. Wow. Well written, insightful.
    Many of these topics (permanent injuries) were brought up in the 80s, and were put on the back-burner. More complaints occurred in the 90s, and again not taken on to the level they should have.
    Spot on that both the NFL & NFLPA have dropped the ball, and one-sided articles/books/reports do all football players a disservice.

  14. Mostly good points here, Mike.

    Also worth pointing out that this is a very good example of how poorly the NFLPA has represented the interests of its players, particularly compared with the MLBPA.

    This type of thing is inevitable when one union was run by a former player (Gene Upshaw) for 25 years while the other was run by union economists, negotiators and lawyers since Marvin Miller in 1966.

  15. One of the contributions of former NFLPA President Gene Upshaw — may he rest in peace — was to deliver the NFLPA into the league’s hip pocket. The NFL neutered the players’ association long before they tried to crush all competing narratives on concussions.

  16. I watched it. I felt like alot was missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

    I still think that “playing football and smashing heads around for years on end can cause brain damage” is something that any reasonable person knows or should know. And it has been clearly written on the sticker-label of every helmet I ever wore from 1986-2002. The veritable punctilio of assumption-of-risk. But that doesn’t excuse the massive dodgy double talk cover-up, or the effort to discredit the medical scientific findings of the studies done on ex-players brain.

  17. One thing that irked and amused me: the film made horribly classist implications that Dr. Pellman’s a quack because he went to medical school in Guadalajara but touts the work Bennet Omalu, who went to medical school at the friggin University of Nigeria.

  18. Thanks for this, Mike. I just finished watching League of Denial and wondered what role, if any, the NFLPA played in this. Hopefully this gets fleshed out a bit in the future.

    Before this post gets muddled in a discussion about how the new rules are destroying the game, I hope some people take the time to watch League of Denial and read about its real health risks.

    I love this game as much as the next fan, but the mounting evidence about the long-term effects of the football we grew up watching is truly disturbing. I (for one) support efforts to make this game safer, even if that means I won’t see as many cringe-worthy hits on the weekends.

  19. If you read the book they do go after the NFLPA. The Frontline report was about the League’s response, not the NFLPA even though they where complicit.

  20. It is shameful what happened but both the NFL and NFLPA are at fault. To what degree is irrelevant.

    The pendulum has clearly swung. Many on this board are unhappy about the effect it has on the game. While there are issues with some calls I think it will eventually correct itself. Wide pendulum swings usually do.

    What I gathered from the documentary critique is what I have noticed more and more recently. Documentaries seem to have moved from an attempt to uncover the truth to an attempt to justify a predetermined position.

  21. Sad that there was a coverup on CTE, but the players who suffer or suffered from it have done a great service for all who come after them to shed light on what serial head injuries can do long term. Even kids heading the ball in soccer has to be looked at. We know so much more now than 20-30 years ago. As a Dad, I am grateful we now know better how to protect our children and young adults.

  22. Does the NFL deserve to be blamed? Yes it does. The efforts to ignore the truth about Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy were shameful and embarrassing, and the league hid the true risks of football from thousands of pro, college, and high school players.


    The NFL didn’t “ignore” the truth. The NFL willfully fought and campaigned against the truth. Huge difference.

    And yes, the NFLPA deserves a nice slice of blame too for sure, but let’s not pretend that it’s even imply that they have ever held the same position of power, leverage, and influence that the league office has.

  23. It’s the way of the USA these days as it’s always the big bad rich guys who cause all the problems in the world. Who’s more responsible for guarding player safety than the UNION that is PAID for by the Players themselves? If what you say, having not see the film , is true than the entire film is nothing more than propaganda and you have to wonder how much money the NFLPA contributed to produce it.

  24. the nflpa is BY FAR the weakest pro sports union in the country. which is ridiculous when you think about it. most popular sport that makes the most amount of money by miles, and the players don’t have guaranteed contracts. go figure. plus they got locked out, and now make less money… while the league rolls in record revenues.

    the nflpa always has been, and always will be, a joke.

  25. Attempting to be overly critical.

    The creators only had so much time to fit for a large amount of info and they chose to focus on the NFL as opposed to the NFLPA. By splitting their focus the extent of the NFL’s involvement may not have been adequately portrayed.

    Thanks for bringing up the NFLPA’s involvement though

  26. The question of why the documentary avoided mentioning the NFLPA is fair and important. But at best it is the second most important question raised by careful study of the facts.

    The most important question right now is: why when 46 brains of former football players have been tested, and 45 of them show conclusively that those men suffered from CTE, does the NFL *to this day* continue to obfuscate and deny that this impact sport has a very very high probability of exposing its players to CTE?

    Football causes brain damage. End of story.

    Now it’s for the American people to decide what role this national passtime should rightfully play in our culture. The NFL, or NCAA or CFL, or Arena Football can’t answer that question for us.

  27. Again it is football. These guys know and those before them knew the risk. 9 out of 10 of them would still do it even if you told them 20 years down the road they would have issues. Fame and fortune playing the greatest game in the world.

    Between Goodell slowly creating pro touch football and this book, it makes me vomit what they are doing to football.

    Make me more angry all the former players suing the league because they blew all their money. Look at Vince Young, Mark Brunell, Nate Newton….there are a lot of players who signed 9 figure contracts and have nothing to show for it. So they all piggy backed these lawsuits.

    Then the older former players who feel they the NFl owes them some of the huge dollars now the league is pulling.

    All of them feel they are owed something…..

    9 out of 10 players would state if truthful they lied to doctors or ignored doctors to get back on the field.

    If Goodell had a pair he would fight all of this and tell the players involved their pension is gone if they participate. Unions have that power and are that crooked.

    It all just mKes me sick.

  28. The question of why the documentary avoided mentioning the NFLPA is fair and important. But at best it is the second most important question raised by a careful study of the facts.

    The most important question right now is: why when 46 brains of former football players have been tested, and 45 of them show conclusively that those men suffered from CTE, does the NFL *to this day* continue to obfuscate and deny that this impact sport has a very very high probability of exposing its players to CTE?

    Football causes brain damage. End of story.

    Now it’s for the American people to decide what role this national passtime should rightfully play in our culture. The NFL, or NCAA or CFL, or Arena Football can’t answer that question for us.

  29. Players should know what they are getting themselves into. They know football is a full contact sport. They choose this path drafted or not drafted, you got a choice of going pro(if you’re good enough) or get a job in the field you graduate from. And if you left college a year earlier then you should then you probably deserve blows to the head to get your head straight.

  30. What about the efforts of Paul Taglibue to deny there was any sort of problem and blame it all on overzealous journalists?

    I get what you’re saying about the NFLPA, but when Taglibue was on the offensive saying there are no issues with concussions in the NFL … he knew it was a complete lie. Someone in his position of authority lying about health and safety over and over again is more than just a little bit of a problem.

  31. Who cares? These people are fairly compensated for their injuries in the NFL. In school programs across the country the rewards of playing far outweigh the risks. If you do not agree than do not let your kids play. Have them join the band or something and the rest of us will try to keep our kids from making too much fun of them. Again we should care far less about those lucky enough to make it to the NFL. It is not like anyone is forcing them to accept the job. They could always go sell cars or insurance or something.

  32. Florio, I am not a fan of yours. However, you nailed it on this one. The PBS documentary was overhyped and at times misleading. And your point was an excellent one.


  33. This is why they settled for 756 million and didn’t get the 2 billion. That and….. when did these guys get the CTE? You can’t prove
    they got it in high school, college or the pros. So who is most to blame?

    The NFL would implode on itself if the NFLPA sued the NFL. In other words it would be an admission of guilt.

    ….anyway, something is going to give and the millions of dollars isn’t the last we saw, it was just confirmation that there is money to be had And blood sucking lawyers will destroy football in the name of justice when the NFL could have saved it by making changes decades ago.

  34. Point understood, but NFLPA mentioned by voice of god around minute 79, disparaged for offering no assistance to spouse of mentally disabled former player.

  35. Congratulations, Mike Florio, on presenting one of the most balanced pieces I’ve ever seen you write. Very good points, and admirably unbiased in your presentation of them.

  36. And every other day we watch an ESPN “Outside the Lines” where host Bob Ley talks in hushed tones in playing the journalist while “covering” the story, while ignoring the fact that ESPN was partners with PBS on this “Frontline” piece until they got cold feet just a few weeks ago and pulled out (pretty much after the fact) because they didn’t want to be seen biting the hands of the NFL benefactors.

    Why ESPN ever produced “Playmakers” or this documentary when they are gutless when it comes to their NFL overlords is anyone’s guess. They also dragged their heels on the Jerry Sandusky scandal for fear of rocking the boat with their NCAA football partners.

    Yet, they continue to act like they’re journalists as opposed to mere marketeers.

  37. I knew League of Denial was going to be a narrow, unidirectional blamefest about 10 minutes in.

    ITS ALL THE NFL’S FAULT! NOBODY ELSE DID ANYTHING WRONG! (actually there were a bunch of other parties involved and they too were responsible but) DAMN THE NFL!

    Numbers don’t lie, but you can use numbers to create any truth you want. Its not so different here.

  38. You always respond to these exposing your true lawyer card. I’d have the same beef with the movie. While it’s incredibly disturbing how far the NFL went, and continues to go, in covering up any official link — my thought is who cares who’s fault it is our who covered up what or who’s going to have to foot the bill. The far more interesting problem is the actual disease. What actually causes it? Why so prevalent in football? What about other contact sports? Are people genetically predisposed to getting it and if so, are those people also genetically predisposed to the competitive and physical demands required for football? These are peoples’ lives — kids’ lives. That dude was 18… The question of whether my sons would play football used to actually be a debate in our household. Now there is absolutely no way they ever step foot on a football field.

  39. Great objectivity in your article. Wish more political news would bring to light both sides of the issue(s) instead of leaning so heavily to one side or the other. News is suppose to be objective. That is why the press is sometimes referred to as the 4th branch of government, they aren’t suppose to take a side. The news is for the people. How can the people make a wise decision with subjective news? My parents always said “it takes two to fight,” good thing there was alway the third sibling to tell the truth… ha!

  40. People always assume unions and corporations have opposing views, but that’s not the case.
    While it’s true that on matters like compensation and other employee benefits, unions and “management” are rarely on the same page, the fact is that unions are just as interested in the survival of the corporation as management.
    The NFL Player’s Association (like the league’s administration/ownership) stops existing if the existence of the NFL is threatened, so it’s not surprising the NFLPA was just as reluctant to publicize the troubling information about concussions as the NFL’s main office was.

  41. The NFLPA and the NFL feed at the same trough. When faced with a choice of rocking the boat and possibly affecting the bottom line or looking out for the welfare of its players, sports unions will always keep the money flowing. In this sense they are the same thing as the NFL, caring for the welfare of its members as long as that doesn’t affect the money flow. They only care when an issue threatens profits via a lawsuit or lost viewers. That’s the only thing the NFL and NFLPA care about here. The brand and greed will always override concern for the well-being of the players. See MLB and the players union handling of PEDs.

  42. Real truth is, even before the medical data was available, anyone with a functioning brain had to realize that slamming into another human being would have long term consequences. No one forces you to make living playing professional football. Start taking accountability for your decisions guys.

  43. Grasping at straws here. The nflpa is the least capable at understanding scientific data and is not sophisticated. They couldn’t even get contract negotiations correct with regard to the new bargaining agreement, and that’s much more straight forward and included the help of teams of attorneys. Not sure there is anything to your story here.

  44. OK, blame the NFLPA too…

    Now, will Goodell and the owners fix the helmets by finally agreeing and admitting that the ProCap worked and has already been “successfully used” by players who were told to try the ProCap or retire from the NFL due to brain trauma/concussions.

    The ProCap allowed several players to extend their playing careers allowing them to retire on their terms rather than being forced to retire due to concussions.

    The ProCap may have been ahead of its time, but there is no excuse for Roger Goodell and the NFL owners to not to make the ProCap mandatory equipment for all NFL players.

    …IT WORKS !

  45. What you say is true, but the fact that the NFLPA was somewhat negligent or even possibly corrupt under Upshaw, doesn’t excuse one bit, the failure of the NFL to seriously and doggedly pursue the concussion issue.

    You seem to suggest that because the NFLPA didn’t act the way it should have acted, the NFL therefore had no responsibility to put in any more effort than they had. They don’t deserve an excuse based on that. Although I do agree with the premise that the NFL doesn’t have a conscience.

  46. I must be some kind of genius or something. For as long as I can remember I believe I have known that fast, over-sized, athletic men bashing their heads together at full speed was dangerous and could cause damage.

  47. This was on PBS am I correct? If so, that explains it all. They are liberal, pro-union folks so they wouldn’t think to make any union, of any business look like they failed its members.

  48. Great post. His point isn’t that the NFL didn’t share culpability but simply that this one sided documentary by its omission is disingenuous.

  49. Like the owners, NFL players (and, by proxy, the NFLPA) have been focused on their bank accounts — everything else be damned.

    It’s why games were played for years on dangerously unsafe artificial surfaces.

    It’s why a blind eye has been turned to steroids and HGH use.

    And it’s why the concussion issue was swept under the rug for so many years.

    Just show me the money!

  50. I suspect that the majority of the damage is done during the Pop Warner/high school/college days – didn’t watch the show, but was that discussed at all?

  51. But the irresponsibility of the book and Frontline documentary go beyond refusing to acknowledge that the NFLPA had a role in the whole matter – the real issue is this – is the “concussion crisis” as bad as it’s advertised to be? The narrative has become that football is killing its players and that the game has lied to players about its risks. The fact is neither is true.

    The game back forty-plus years ago routinely saw player fatalities to head injuries – some 20 per year from what I understand. We don’t see anything close to that today. And where are the thousands of ex-player deaths from brain degeneration over the last 20 years? They aren’t there. On the contrary, the way the narrative is driven, people seem to be trying to define concussions down to justify slamming the league for ostensibly hiding the risks from players.

    The fact is no one hid anything – it was a legitimate disagreement about whether the concussion issue was as bad as it is now being portrayed. The game is safe and the Fainarus smear it as something it isn’t.

  52. Why dont Race Car drivers sue the car companies, the tire makers and the racing leagues when they crash.

    Driving at high speed and crashing into a wall is dangerous. I dont know if they were properly warned.

    Like FB players, they make TONS of money they wouldnt otherwise make if they didnt have such a dangerous profession that not many people could do.

  53. If the Frontline reporters did not use quotes from the player’s union members on the board, could this be due to their lack of Medical Degrees vs. the medical professionals the League owners employ?

  54. Like every good documentary, this one was weighted heavily. The NFLPA definitely should be taken to task on their involvement in this deal.

    As good as the league has been at denying their knowledge, lack thereof, and involvement, the players association has been better.

    I’m not a shield loyalist, I just see it as a sad fact of omission.

  55. Is anyone really surprised though? How many times have we seen stories similar to this, between tobacco companies and PG & E with Erin Brockovich. When presented with the choice of being forthright, potentially losing profit and having a small mess, or covering it up with potential for a massive mess and PR nightmare, they choose to cover it up.

  56. If the NFL truly cared about safety why don’t they mandate that players use the safest helmet technology available and stop trying to force more regular season or playoff games. They made a big stink over thigh/knee pads last year but the safest helmets may not be cosmetically appealing so no mandate from Godell

  57. These guys did a live Q&A on Deadspin yesterday and basically said that they decided to focus on the leagues culpability because there was only so much that could be covered in 2 hours.

    Also, while it’s true that the NFLPA doesn’t completely escape blame for this, the actions of the NFL over the past 20 years have been despicable. The primary focus of the story should be the shady doings of the League Office.

  58. Have you ever seen someone get their head smashed in and think “that’s gotta be good for the brain?” We know now EXACTLY what we have always known: smashing your head isn’t good for your brain. Science hasn’t really taught us anything important we didn’t already know. Its an issue of common sense. Not science.

  59. The msg I got from the program is that the damage probably starts when a child starts playing football, it’s cumulative, and non-reversible, so the only way around it is to discontinue playing.

    Go from there . . . .

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