How You Watch the NFL, League of Denial, Documentary on the NFL and Brain Injury

Is your brain tired of hearing about brain injuries and the NFL?  The front offices folks, marketing and public relations people, and corporate higher-ups would love nothing more than for the wounded brains of their retired players to go unreported and unacknowledged.  For the whole scandal that involves concussions in football to gradually fade, like the memories of former players, as they became subsumed by depression, migraine headaches, and early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Thankfully, PBS’ Frontline has no money invested in the billion-dollar industry that is American Professional Football.  In fact, they are invested in educating the American people about the issues that corporate America would often rather overlook.  Football is entertaining to so many Americans.  It is an inherently violent game.  That doesn’t mean we should ignore the reality that people are being physically and mentally damaged every Sunday (Monday and Thursday), and that we are so consumed with the wins and losses of our favorite franchises and our fantasy football teams, that we often forget that human beings are taking part in these events.

Let’s take a second to consider the reality and the fantasy:

The reality: The men that play professional football are choosing to play a sport in which they are putting their physical and mental well-being at risk.

The reality: The athletes that choose to play football are predominantly from poor and working-class families and football is a way out of poverty.

The reality: Watching football or following football, though it can be obsessive and have side effects on one’s social or family life, is not permanently mentally damaging or physically damaging (unless you gorge yourself on beer and fried food whenever you watch).

The reality: It will continue to thrive as an industry and sport regardless of one individual’s participation or interest.

The fantasy: That there is no harm in watching, discussing, following and obsessing about the game of football.  The complete separation between the athletes you watch, follow, cheer for, read about, judge, live vicariously through, etc., the separation from the concept that these are human beings who are damaging themselves is a dehumanizing act.  It allows the viewer to detach more concretely than is healthy.  The way a gambler detaches from the love of the game, and becomes subsumed by the result and his/her bet.

I understand that sports are meant to entertain.  That we do not all watch for the same reasons.  That it is perfectly acceptable to choose to escape reality through a passionate obsession to a sport or a team, or an individual player’s performance.  I am certainly guilty of that kind of obsession.  However, there is an underlying element to sports which seeks to help us understand ourselves and our society through the act of watching, discussing, and emotionally investing ourselves.  In an increasingly atomized modern world, the ways in which we invest in the collective elements of society (a sports team is different than a television show, a podcast, or a website) remains critical, and telling of how we choose to live.

Through the collective act of cheering.  Watch the crowd at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park during their wild-card baseball game win over Cincinnati to see how a city is impacted by a suddenly successful team.  A collective wave of positive energy is undeniable.  Johnny Cueto felt that to the extent that he accidentally dropped the baseball he was holding in between pitches, as the crowd did their best to get under his skin.  On the other hand, the baseball fans in Cleveland today are mourning the one-game playoff format and the fact that their newly-resurgent baseball club is gone as quickly as they joined the October baseball party.  Sports are no doubt entertaining and emotionally arresting.  However, It is the responsibility of the league that governs its sport to have a conscience, even if that conscience is overwhelmed by business interests.  The NFL has spent decades covering up the reality of head injuries.  It has the laws on its side, getting public financing for insane stadium costs.  As Patrick Hruby, reporting for Sports on Earth, recently reported, it is declared a non-profit and is exempt from paying taxes.

PBS’ description of League of Denial, which airs on Tuesday, October 8.  The documentary is based on the book League of Denial, written by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, two highly-respected ESPN reporters who interviewed over 200 former players and NFL personnel in their exhaustive research.  In a telling piece for Sports Illustrated, Richard Deitsch reported on the controversy surrounding ESPN’s decision NOT to air the documentary, but to pass it on to PBS.

The National Football League, a multibillion-dollar commercial juggernaut, presides over America’s indisputable national pastime. But the NFL is under assault: thousands of former players have claimed the league tried to cover up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players. What did the NFL know, and when did it know it? In a special two-hour investigation, Frontline reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries.

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