Nothing has fostered the comparison between NFL football and the ancient Roman gladiators quite like the work of NFL films. In these slow motion masterpieces, accompanied by narration from John “The Voice of God” Facenda, the balletic brutality of the sport is cast as some kind of romantic existential struggle.
After reading League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth over the weekend, I’ll never see these films again as anything more than slow motion documentation of men destroying their futures.
In case you aren’t familiar with the book by brothers and ESPN journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, it chronicles the discovery of early onset brain damage in professional football players, and particularly the NFL’s efforts to deny the science and discredit the scientists behind these discoveries.
It’s a fascinating and chilling read. One of the questions it left me with was this: If every former player doesn’t end up with this kind brain damage, why not? What is in the makeup of some former players that protects them from this? And I think that will be a key focus of the coming research. Because it’s pretty clear that every single player who plays for any length of time is at risk.
Because guess what? It’s not about concussions. Or at least not completely. Repetitive sub-concussive brain trauma seems to be enough to trigger the disease. Asked how often he’d experienced such trauma, one former NFL player estimated 25,000 times.
And, oh by the way, no helmet can ever protect from this kind of injury, because it’s not about blows to the outside of the head, it’s about blows to the inside of the head, i.e., the brain impacting the skull when a player’s head is forced into an abrupt change of direction, which is pretty much on every play, for some players.
I’m looking forward to watching the companion Frontline episode that aired in October. You can watch the entire thing online here. Trailer below. Check out the book here, especially if you have a kid who wants to play football.