Football has never seemed so dominant, in ratings or in popular culture. Despite this, some believe the NFL is heading for a dramatic fall and that football culture itself is suffering from a disease that is literally fatal.
Tonight's "Frontline" documentary, "League of Denial: The NFL's Concus sion Crisis" (9 p.m., PBS), has already made news. Just this summer, ESPN backed away from its association with the film, allegedly under pressure from the NFL.
The danger of playing football and taking hard hits is hardly news. The film deals with the accumulation of evidence that playing football leads to brain damage and dementia, and the gnawing concern that the NFL was aware of this and has tried to deny or deflect the evidence so as to avoid legal obligation to the growing ranks of ex-players seeking medical care and compensation. Like many media scandals, it boils down to what the NFL knew and when its leaders knew it.
Some people are going to dismiss "League" as another battle in the culture wars, an attempt by Chablis-sipping sophisticates to destroy America's game. To counter that impression, "Denial" begins with the story of Mike Webster, a 17-
year veteran of Pittsburgh's
beloved Steelers. As his fellow players recall, Webster played center with his head -- using it as a battering ram. And the steady pummeling would shatter his mind, render him homeless and kill him by 50.
In a tragic twist, it would be Webster's head, or rather the scientific study of his preserved brain, that first led doctors and regulators to seriously question the NFL's culture of organized violence.
One expert estimates the G-force impact of playing impact-heavy football is the equivalent of driving a car at 30 mph into a wall. And doing it more than a thousand times a year.
In a harrowing story, Leigh Steinberg, the super agent who inspired "Jerry Maguire,"
describes how Troy Aikman's frightening post-concussion
behavior utterly changed his mind about the value of the game.
The NFL recently settled a deal with more than 4,200 players claiming brain damage. But this does not quiet a growing chorus of people, including former players, willing to publicly declare they might not allow their own children to play football.
Sometimes it takes a gener-
ation or more to change a culture. Remember when cigarette smokers were cool? In many ways, the growing list of former NFL stars who have receded into dementia and early graves is reminiscent of the many famous smokers to die before their time. It may take years, but people tend to learn by
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Kevin McDonough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.