League of Denial: A review of the PBS documentary

steve young

49ers legend Steve Young
one of the great interviews on the
documentary, “League of Denial”

I watched the PBS Documentary “League of Denial” this week, and I’m sure many of you did as well.

In one word:  Bravo.

I thought the folks at PBS’ Frontline did a fantastic job, touching on many facets of what is arguably the biggest sport public health story of the last two decades.  There were so many dimensions to the nearly two hour documentary, it’s hard to know where to begin my review.  In nearly two hours, PBS (with a ‘redacted assist,’ if that’s the phrase, from ESPN), covered a lot of ground.

I thought I would highlight some of the major personas that showed up, and divide them into the following four categories: “Winners,” “Losers,” “Meh,” and “In Memoriam”

Winners

Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who broke the story of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is my pick for the most compelling figure in this documentary.  A physician of great training and accomplishment, he had the mixed fortune of conducting the post-mortem examination of Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers icon who died young and whose brain showed the pathologic changes of CTE, the first case documented in an NFL player and reported in this study.

Dr. Omalu’s story, both personally and professionally, is worthy of its own documentary.  Originally from Nigeria, he knows little about American fooball and nothing about the Steelers icon when he first meets the latter’s corpse and goes about his job.  He reports being thoroughly unimpressed with the gross morphology of the deceased’s brain:  how it looked ‘normal.’  It was only on conducting his histopathologic exam that he made his stunning discovery.

For this and further efforts in investigating CTE in deceased NFL players’ brains, he was smeared by the NFL and its affiliated physicians.  Omalu poignantly states as a result, he wished he had never ‘met Mike Webster.’

As an Associate Editor of a medical journal, I found the calls by some in the NFL medical community (see below) for Omalu to retract his CTE study and their ad hominem attacks to be the more egregious sins (among many) reported in the documentary.  The process of science, spearheaded by peer-reviewed literature, is one of openness; disagreements are cause for further study, not suppression.  Retraction should be reserved for outright fraud.  The calls for retraction in this case are shameful.

Ann McKee, another neuropathologist now with the Boston Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has picked up the baton and is continuing to carry on the research into CTE in former professional football players, despite further pushback from vested interests and more ad hominem attacks that insinuate that, as a woman, what might she know about football?

Steve Young who experienced five or six concussions in his career, is one of the former players interviewed for this documentary.  I remember Steve Young well, as I lived in the Bay Area for many of the seasons of his glorious career with the 49ers, and I remember too when he had his career-ending concussion. Read more of this post

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