ESPN’s decision to abandon their forthcoming documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” appears to be more a symbolic than substantive gesture. Two of ESPN’s star reporters still serve as the driving force behind the Frontline production, and it will air as scheduled on PBS. Nevertheless, as the public divorce followed a private lunch between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN executives, the optics couldn’t be worse. Such bullying fits the caricature of the league that the documentary paints.
This doesn’t mean that the NFL doesn’t have a point. It’s football’s critics who have been in denial about the sport’s concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The science isn’t settled. It’s spirited.
Take the academic literature on concussions, which can be downright contradictory. A 2012 American Journal of Sports Medicine article points to 300,000 sports concussions annually; a 2012 Annals of Biomedical Engineering article notes that as many as 3.8 million sports concussions occur every year. One study claims that football hits that rotate the head are most apt to result in concussion; another claims that hits that jar the head in up-down fashion are most apt to result in concussion. We know concussion rates in high school football consistently eclipse the rates for lacrosse and hockey. We don’t know too much else.
We project our own ignorance of brain injuries upon the past. A perusal of the coverage of the most famous hit in NFL history — Chuck Bednarik’s consciousness-relieving wallop on Frank Gifford — demonstrates the seriousness with which posterity regarded concussions. Doctors hospitalized Gifford for more than two weeks in 1962, they blocked him from playing for the remainder of the season, and the Hall of Famer skipped the following year, too. This prudential approach indicates that concussions troubled our forebears as they trouble us.
While doctors offer few advances in concussion care — they diagnose them clinically and treat them with rest just as they did a century ago — CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease first discovered in deceased football players less than a decade ago, inspires a rapidly changing body of knowledge.
The “Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport” released from Zurich by more than two-dozen of the field’s leaders in November declared that “a cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.”
Articles released in British, Canadian, and American academic journals since the Zurich declaration similarly relate that the CTE-contact sports connection remains supposition. Christopher Randolph, the Loyola Medical Center neurologist who co-authored one of the aforementioned articles, told PopularScience.com: “There’s not sufficient evidence to justify the assumption that CTE exists at his point.”
While not in the mainstream, the statement reflects the wide parameters of debate within the scientific community. Ironically, those echoing the position most scientists studying the issue hold — that mere case studies showing CTE in individual players do not condemn football as a causal agent — are accused of ignoring the science.
Even the Boston University group pushing the CTE narrative embraced by League of Denial acknowledges overreach. “Concussions generate buzz and get all the publicity,” Dr. Robert Cantu declared in his recent book Concussions and Our Kids. “For my patients who’ve had multiple concussions and fear that they are at risk for developing CTE later in life, I offer simple advice: Relax. The connection has been greatly overstated.” Three of his BU colleagues conceded in a 2011 article, “To date, there have been no randomized neuropathological studies of CTE in deceased athletes, and as such, there is a selection bias in the cases that have come to autopsy.”