'Frontline's League of Denial' review: NFL concussions

Offensive lineman Mike Webster #52 of the Pittsburgh Offensive lineman Mike Webster #52 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the sideline during a preseason game against the Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Aug. 4, 1984) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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REVIEW

THE DOCUMENTARY "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" on "Frontline"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Hall of Fame center who died in 2002 at 50, suffered through a rough final few years: depression, confusion and, finally, homelessness. A pathologist, Bennet Omalu, examining his brain, expected to find signs of dementia, but instead found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease not normally associated with football players or other athletes who suffered repeated head trauma. Veteran investigative reporters (and brothers) Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN say the NFL has not only refuted a conclusive link between repeated head trauma and CTE, but stifled scientists like Omalu. (Lake Success rheumatologist Elliot Pellman, former chairman of the league's research arm on brain trauma, also had denied the link.)

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MY SAY "League of Denial" got some precious notoriety in late August, when ESPN withdrew its support from the film, citing lack of editorial control. Questions along with eyebrows were raised. Did the NFL force ESPN to back off, as it had 10 years ago when ESPN canceled the raunchy football series "Playmakers," also (reportedly) at the league's urging?

Both question and answer are immaterial here: "League of Denial" is still damning, and ESPN's imprimatur remains intact. (Besides the Fainaru brothers, ESPN the Magazine senior writer Peter Keating, who has reported extensively on the NFL concussion crisis, is quoted throughout.) Moreover, ESPN.com's continuing series on the subject for "Outside the Lines" is as tough as -- possibly even tougher than -- "League." So why the fuss? Hard to say. Anyone who has been paying close attention to this may not learn a great deal. Even the Pellman story seems old (it is).

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But what "League of Denial" does well is set this up for the average viewer -- someone who may not know that for years there has been a raging controversy in the NFL over concussions. "Denial" only hints at the ramifications, but here's at least one: What if a mom somewhere decides she doesn't want her son to get chronic traumatic encephalopathy some day? Where, then, will the NFL get its players?

BOTTOM LINE Powerful

GRADE A

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