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League of Denial fails to tell the whole story on concussions


We saw this one coming last November, when Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada dusted off the Mike Webster disability case and incorrectly sold it as a smoking gun.

League of Denial, the much-hyped look at the NFL’s failure to acknowledge the concussion issue on a more timely basis, likewise fails to tell the whole story about the concussion crisis. Not a single time in the two-hour documentary does the voice-of-God Frontline narrator or the Fainaru brothers or any of the persons interviewed ever mention the letters N, F, L, P, and A.

The NFLPA is the NFL Players Association. It’s the union that represents all players. It is, legally and in many practical ways, the players.

The NFLPA had three members on the six-person disability board that granted Webster benefits for brain damage in response to his 1999 claim. It was, despite being consistently characterized as the league’s disability board, an even split of responsibility between the NFL and the NFLPA.

So if the decision in the Webster case to link brain damage to football put the league on notice of the dangers of head trauma, the NFLPA was on notice of it, too.

This same dynamic applies to the rightfully-maligned Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. Their work was shoddy, and their efforts at times were laughable. For too many years and in too many people, the human instinct of self-preservation overcame the human aspiration to do the right thing.

But the documentary never mentions that the NFLPA had a direct role in the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. How is that not worth at least a fleeting mention in a two-hour, no-commercials program?

At a time when some are lamenting the fact that the settlement of the concussion lawsuits will prevent the public from knowing what the NFL knew and when the NFL knew it, those same questions will never be answered regarding the NFLPA. What did the NFLPA know, when did the NFLPA know it, and why didn’t the NFLPA do a better job of protecting its men?

And why didn’t Frontline or the Fainarus mention in a two-hour documentary the NFLPA a single time? It was as if the NFLPA didn’t even exist, that the players had no collective body with the power, ability, and position to shield them from wrongdoing.

The simple fact is that, under the late Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA was a major part of the problem.

Consider this quote from NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in his 2009 remarks to Congress: “There is simply no justification for the NFL to have previously ignored or discredited Dr. [Bennet] Omalu and others with relevant, valid research. For far too long, our former players were left adrift; as I emphasized at the last hearing, we were complicit in the lack of leadership and accountability, but that ends now. I am here again to make it clear that our commitment is unwavering.”

Plenty of time was spent attacking the NFL for discrediting Dr. Omalu. Wouldn’t it be relevant to mention that the head of the NFLPA told Congress that the NFL unfairly disregarded Dr. Omalu’s work?

Of course, that would have required Frontline and the Fainarus to acknowledge the NFLPA. Which could have caused some in the audience to wonder what the NFLPA was or wasn’t doing when the NFL had its head in the sand about brain injuries. Which may have disrupted the apparent agenda of Frontline and the Fainarus to blame the entire problem on the NFL.

Does the NFL deserve to be blamed? Yes it does. The efforts to ignore the truth about Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy were shameful and embarrassing, and the league hid the true risks of football from thousands of pro, college, and high school players.

But the NFL doesn’t deserve all of the blame, not when the NFLPA was in position to know just as much as the league did but apparently did nothing to protect the players who paid their membership dues, year in and year out.

Many will praise Frontline and the Fainarus, even though much of what they disclosed has been hiding in plain sight. For their persistent and ongoing failure to ignore (by all appearances deliberately) the arguably more intriguing question of whether the NFLPA put its ongoing existence over the interests of its rank-and-file, Frontline and the Fainarus also deserve to be criticized.

It’ll be interesting to see if anyone else does, especially at the risk of blindly being dubbed a shill for the league office.