On Tuesday, the PBS program Frontline aired what may be the most definitive piece yet on the long, troubling and legally questionable history of the National Football League’s relationship with brain injuries. The 2-hour piece is called “League of Denial,” and it is well worth a watch — even for those who are well-read on the subject.
The Unraveling of ‘Iron Mike’
The documentary opens with the tragic tale of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. As the centerpiece of the offensive line, “Iron Mike” received – and delivered – his share of blows to the head, using his helmet as a tool to strike defenders.
After 17 years in the NFL, Webster’s brain began to unravel, and his life followed suit. He lost his marriage and suffered from depression and dementia.Frontline aired difficult-to-watch interview clips in which Webster spoke lucidly on a subject before losing his thoughts completely, awkwardly grasping for words that were not there. He tried and tried to collect his thoughts, but without success. He eventually gave up. It was obviously a familiar exercise for Iron Mike.
Webster eventually began living out of his pickup truck, unable to sleep and taking stimulants like Ritalin to allow him some level of focus. But he never got his life back on track.
He died in 2002 at just 50, and his death would trigger “a chain of events that would threaten to forever change the way America sees the game of football,’” as described by Frontline.
The Saga Continues
An autopsy revealed Webster suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative condition caused by repeated head trauma that triggers symptoms like dementia, aggression and confusion, even decades later. The surgeon who performed the autopsy told Frontline he did a double-take during the procedure after finding damage no 50-year-old man’s brain should exhibit.
Webster was the first – but certainly not the last – football player found to show signs of CTE after death. Frontline dubbed Webster “patient zero.”
We won’t cover the ensuing decade in detail here. But if you want to learn more about the NFL’s frequent assertions that repeated head injuries are not damaging in the long-run – and the science that proves otherwise – check out the Frontline report.
The documentary aired a month after the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players still reeling from the effects of repeated head trauma.
Today, the NFL does not blatantly deny the suffering players have endured. But, given the terms of the settlement, we may never know exactly what the league knew about the subject and when it knew it.
The Issue That Won’t Go Away
For those keeping count, there have been 36 concussions through the five weeks of the current NFL season, according to Frontline, which tracks them each week and offers a breakdown by player position. Twelve weeks of regular season football still remain, meaning the league is on pace for more than 130 concussions before the playoffs even begin.
The football/brain injury issue has not died down — even if the NFL wishes it would — and it shouldn’t. Why? Because so many of us have children who play football on youth or high school fields. Football head injuries and their long-term effects aren’t just a problem for professional athletes. You don’t need to follow the NFL to recognize the seriousness of this issue.
During Frontline’s segment on Mike Webster, Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson – who himself suffers from neurological issues stemming from his playing days — describes what it was like to collide with Iron Mike on the field. One expert told Frontline that players’ helmets can collide with one another with 20 g-forces – the equivalent to driving a car into a brick wall at 30 miles per hour. Imagine that every Sunday from September to January.
Knowing now what he didn’t know then, Carson said he won’t allow his young grandson to play football.
Who We Are
The Brain Injury Law Center is a legal service that represents the victims of traumatic brain injuries and fights to get them the compensation they deserve. Our founder, Stephen M. Smith, has more than four decades of experience with these cases and is consulted by attorneys nationwide on the subject.
Contact Stephen Smith today for a free consultation if a TBI has caused a loved one to suffer through no fault of their own.