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Oct 09

Frontline, and football.

I watched last night’s incredible PBS Frontline documentary, League of Denial, with keen interest. I have, erm, a special interest* in the suffering that can follow a person who’s had too many concussions.

*the short version: I had too many concussions, and spent my early 20s in a daze, with no short-term memory, limited long-term memory, no energy, limited feeling in my hands and feet, and very few reasons to believe life would ever be worth it again. Now, thanks to a particular treatment, I’m better, but for how long? And what happens when I get my next concussion?

The film was a tremendous piece of journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum made the point that lots of us knew most of the individual pieces of information PBS presented, and had seen some of the footage of players laying down big hits and later struggling to form complete sentences. But last night, all those disparate pieces of information were masterfully combined into one damning timeline.

Someone on Twitter set the over/under at the number of mentions this film gets during NFL broadcasts this weekend at one. I took the under, confidently. How could anyone whose paycheck comes from the NFL (or a broadcasting partnership with them) find a way to bring up the film – in the midst of a game that WILL feature lots of men getting sub-concussive hits and maybe full-blown concussions – without mentioning anything harmful to the league?

The filmmakers spoke with tons of family and friends, telling haunting stories of players who, it turned out, had CTE. Like Mike Webster’s friend Sunny Jani, whom Webster asked to tase him so he could fall asleep – in the seat of his truck, where he lived. He would tell people he “used to be” Mike Webster.

It was 1997 when the NFL conceded that a career in the league had harmed Webster’s brain enough that they needed to pay him disability. 1997! But much later Roger Goodell’s hand-selected doctor Ira Casson curtly denied any link whatsoever between football and cognitive problems. Repeatedly.

Steve Young addressed something that I struggled with when I was sick. He said something about how anyone can see a knee injury, for example, but a concussion is invisible. People can’t – and often don’t seem willing to try to –¬† empathize. Young described the human brain as “the last frontier.”

Late in the film, someone – I think it was Ann McKee, one of the heroes of CTE/football research – said a sentence I’ve said to dozens of people, mostly teenagers, who have contacted me about how to cope with their own concussion issues: “You only get one brain.” I can’t tell any of these people what to do – it’s ultimately up to them whether to quit their sport – but I can tell them somewhat definitively that it won’t be worth it to keep putting themselves on a field where they’ll endanger their one and only brain.

So how is it that I’m still a football fan?

Since I published my own story this spring, I’ve counseled dozens of post-concussion sufferers. A handful have quit football. More couldn’t continue an e-mail chain so they had a family member help them type their messages for them. All have asked, in some way or another, whether there’s any hope at all for life after concussions.

So how can I keep watching the sport that destroys the brains of so many of its players? Because old habits die hard, and I’m weak-willed. That’s really it. It’s harder to watch, sure, but I still do it. I don’t jump up and celebrate big hits; I get knots in my stomach every time one happens. Little by little, I watch less of it, though. I haven’t watched a single Husker game beginning-to-end yet this year, practically a mortal sin for someone born and raised in Nebraska.

Someday, either because I can’t take it anymore or because the sport dies out completely, I’ll stop. What about you?

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