Matt Butler: Show reveals NFL's shocking attempts to downplay concussion

View from the sofa: League of Denial, PBS America

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The Independent Online

OK, confession time. This week’s column was originally going to be on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Rebecca Adlington’s insecurities might have got a mention, as would the odd juxtaposition of Joey Essex’s 10,000-watt smile and candle-in-the-wind intellect.

But then a preview of League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis landed in the Independent inbox. And, if you’ll pardon the pun, it was hard-hitting stuff.

As it is scheduled for broadcast over two consecutive nights starting on Thursday on PBS America we won’t give too much away. But it should be watched by every coach, medical officer and player involved in contact sport in this country.

The documentary, shown in the United States last month, tells the story of the NFL’s long-standing denial that its sport leads to brain damage in players as a result of repeated blows to the head.

It is a well-researched investigation, with some staggering revelations, from participants including players, agents, lawyers and doctors. The programme started with the tragic story of Mike Webster, a tough guy from the Pittsburgh Steelers who delighted in hitting opponents as hard as he could – usually with his head.

Webster loved to get in the “pit”, NFL fans’ vernacular for the part of the game where big blokes smash into each other. After he retired, having played 17 years at the top level, his family said he became increasingly confused, forgetful and prone to angry mood swings. He died at the age of 50, a victim of a sport which proudly markets itself on the strength of its repeated and sustained violence.

The coroner who worked on Webster, the Nigerian-born Bennet Omalu, is a key interviewee. He has no interest in American football (he greeted every player brought to his table with “who is he?”), but he uncovered the first hard evidence that the sport was damaging its players’ brains.

He saw anomalies in Webster’s brain and concluded that the damage was because of repeated trauma; findings that, predictably, sparked a smear campaign from doctors on the NFL roster.

But a significant minority of Omalu’s peers had their interest piqued. One was Ann McKee and her subsequent research brought even more shocking revelations to light – ones which have helped to start a debate in the States about whether the nation’s children should even play American football.

An interest in NFL is not necessary to be transfixed by the show; the subject matter is just as relevant to any contact sport.

This year’s court settlement between the NFL and a group of ex-players, which cost the league $765m (£472m), is well-documented, but the backstory, including the organisation’s determination to cover its own back legally and its pig-headed bullying of scientists in the face of hard evidence is jaw-dropping. The portrayal of its conduct is a lesson in how not to handle a crisis.

It will not spoil your viewing by revealing that there is no happy ending to the show. But that does not stop it from being required watching.

Twitter: @mattbutler503

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