Frontline, the long-running documentary television series on PBS, has a program airing in October called “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” which asks the question, “What did the NFL know and when did they know it in regards to concussions and long-term effects on players?”
NFL hall-of-fame linebacker Harry Carson (pictured) says that concussions were just a part of the game when he played, because back then, nobody knew about the long-term effects.
“That’s the way that we played the game. Nobody knew anything about concussions and certainly nobody knew anything about the lingering effects of concussions down the road,” says Carson. “It was about playing hard, playing for your teammates, trying to save your job and winning games.”
But he adds, “When I look at the various film clips, it was there in plain sight for everybody to see. … Nobody knew anything back then, but everybody knows a whole lot more now.”
The producers of the documentary say that the NFL has not been overly cooperative in the making of the documentary in terms of providing footage, but add that the league is currently embroiled in some legal issues surrounding the concussion problem.
“Big institutions don’t often open their doors to the hard look we were wanting to take,” says filmmaker Michael Kirk. “They obviously don’t want to talk about it and it’s too bad because it’s a huge, huge problem.”
“We’ve had several conversations with the NFL about what we’re doing,” adds Steve Fainaru, the journalist and ESPN writer behind the book “League of Denial,” which is being published in conjunction with the documentary. “That lack of cooperation … has extended to us as well. We understand that they’re being sued by more than one-third of all living players over this issue, so it’s a diffcult one, but no, they haven’t been cooperative with our work as well.”
But NFL cooperation or not, the documentary isn’t being made simply to focus on the NFL. Because it’s also about the effects football injuries can have on children who play.
“Who should be playing football? What about my own children? What about your children? Should they be out there playing tackle football and at what age?” asks Kirk.
“I have a 3-year-old grandson,” adds Carson. “and I’ve told his mom, my daughter, that he’s not gonna play football. … Knowing what I know now, I do not want him to play. The stuff that I know, I know for pretty damn sure because I was diagnosed two years after I left football with post-concussion syndrome. … I say parents need to be vigilant as to what they allow their children to do. When you sign that consent form, you need to understand exactly what you’re doing.”
“As for me and my family, I don’t want my grandson to play,” Carson finishes.
Part of what has brought the concussion problem to such national attention are the suicides of former players, which Carson says is what is really driving it home with current players.
“10 years ago there was absolutely no concern, there was absolutely no dialog. But there is more concern now,” says Carson. “When the NFL started putting up posters, four perhaps five years ago, that said if you try to play through a concussion, it could lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, that is something players see and have to take notice of. I think a lot came out of players committing suicide, especially Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.”
“I run into people all the time … who have thanked me for being public and talking about the subject because it gives them an insight that they didn’t now before,” adds Carson. “The information is out there now for people to digest and make their own decisions as to what they want to do with their minors.
“I think that the
NFL will continue to grow and flourish, but the question is, do you
want your child to sustain that concussion that is going to limit his
ability to make decisions down the road? … Everyone has to make up
their own mind if they want to go down that road or not.”
“League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” airs Oct. 8 and 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.