CRF Blog

The Collision Sport on Trial

by Bill Hayes

In The Collision Sport on Trial for the New York Review of Books, David Maraniss reviews Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond; The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football by Gregg Easterbrook; Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football by Gilbert M. Gaul; League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru; Concussion, a film directed by Peter Landesman; and Requiem for a Running Back, a documentary film directed by Rebecca Carpenter.

In the debate about football and brain trauma, Mike Webster’s dead brain started it all, in a sense, and Chris Borland’s living brain intensified the discussion. Separated by forty years, their stories weave together through the writings and films I examined on the subject.

“Iron Mike” Webster was a Hall of Fame center who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, won four Super Bowl rings, and died in 2002 at age fifty. By then he was a broken man who lived in a pickup truck, estranged from his family, shocking himself with a Taser and attaching his teeth with superglue. It was his brain tissue that Dr. Bennet Omalu — the main character in Concussion — examined at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, leading to the discovery of CTE. Flashbacks depicting Webster’s tormented last days, as portrayed by actor David Morse, are among the movie’s most telling scenes.

As Concussion unfolds, the NFL responds to Dr. Omalu’s findings about Webster’s brain by calling him a quack and claiming that the CTE discovery is bad science. The campaign against him continues even after he documents strikingly similar damage in the brain tissue of other troubled former players who died too young. This reaction became part of a pattern. When Alan Schwarz of The New York Times started writing about traumatic brain injuries and football, Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner, said dismissively that this “is one of those pack journalism issues, frankly.” The NFL formed its own study committee, stacked with doctors affiliated with the league. As League of Denial documents, the goal was to obfuscate the problem. Theirs was the junk science, not Omalu’s. One scientific paper declared: “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.” Webster endured more than 70,000 blows during his long career.

Chris Borland was an inside linebacker who played one brilliant season for the San Francisco 49ers, then retired in March 2015 at age twenty-four after studying the potential long-term effects the game might have on his brain. [more]