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tv   Frontline  PBS  December 15, 2015 10:00pm-11:01pm PST

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>> the national football leage under attack. >> ...beginning of the end for the nfl. >> injuries in the national football league... >> the end of the nfl here... >> growing concern over concussions. >> the danger of concussions... >> players leaving the league. >> ...retire from the nfl due to concussion concerns. >> kids starting to stay off the field. >> one of the things parents worry about... >> kids and concussions. >> and now, even a hollywood movie. >> i've found a disease that no one has ever seen... >> frontline's original story of the doctor who began it all. >> you can't go against the nfl. they'll squash you. >> now, part 1 of the award- winning investigation "league of denial."
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>> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. more information is available at additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at the wyncote foundation. and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. and additional support from scott nathan and laura debonis.
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(horns blowing) >> erenberg touchdown! >> listen to this crowd, they're on fire! >> the steelers have their key receivers in. stallworth on the left, 82, swann, 88, on the right. franco harris is now at the 30, big pileup. he fumbled the ball! and let's see... minnesota has it! jeff siemon on it. >> oh, yeah! it's still wild and woolly, and i love 'em that way. >> you love 'em wild and woolly and you're seeing it now. >> impressive drive by the steelers. >> everybody loves everybody when you win. >> the drive has used a lot of time. here's a roll-out. bradshaw fires... touchdown!
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an awesome physical team were the steelers today. (crowd chanting) pittsburgh, the super bowl champs. >> narrator: pittsburgh. for 70 years, they've loved their football team: the steelers. >> this is a tough town. the people here are tough, tough-minded. the way the steelers played the game meshed perfectly with the people. >> hit him! hit him! >> they loved that hard-hitting, punishing, brutal defense that they played. >> narrator: they called the defensive line the steel curtain. >> that just fit perfectly into the way they saw their own lives and what they had to be in order to survive.
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>> narrator: and if there was one iconic steeler, it was number 52, iron mike webster. >> mike webster exemplified what it was like to be a player in the steel city and a player in that era that for me was the greatest team of all time. >> pittsburgh's going to the super bowl! >> narrator: in the 1970s, webster anchored four super bowl championship teams. >> mike was a legend and a hero. he may have been the legend and the hero because here's that blue-collar worker center who doesn't get any glory, doesn't catch the touchdown passes, doesn't kick the 52-yard field goal to win a game. he's just in every play. >> i just loved watching him play. and mike's favorite games were the ones that were cold and snowy and frigid, and he could get up there with these short sleeves.
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and the dirtier and muddier it got made things better. >> narrator: then, 11 years after he retired, the people of pittsburgh received some bad news. >> at what price glory? the hall of fame center mike webster died at the age of 50. >> he died on tuesday. he was just 50 years old. he was known as iron mike. >> he had heart disease... >> narrator: the news that day would start a chain of events that would threaten to forever change the way americans see the game of football. >> it is hard to find a former pro football player whose body hasn't paid a very high price. >> narrator: mike webster's body was delivered to the allegheny county coroner's office. >> webster ends up in the autopsy room. and the pathologist who's on call that day is this guy, bennet omalu. >> omalu parked his car and walked into the office and he said, "what's going on?" and one of his colleagues said, "it's mike webster. he's up in the autopsy room."
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and omalu's response was, "who's mike webster?" >> and everybody looked at me like, "where is he from, is he from outer space? who is this guy who doesn't know mike webster in pittsburgh?" >> he's a nigerian-born, incredibly well-educated guy, but he doesn't know anything about football. >> narrator: a doctor, omalu was also a trained neuropathologist. from the beginning of the autopsy, dr. omalu could see the effects of 17 years in the football wars. >> mike looked older than his age. he looked beat up. he looked... he looked worn out. he looked drained. if i had not been told his age, i would say he looked like 70. >> narrator: omalu started at the feet and worked his way up. >> there were cracks running the length of his feet and they
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were incredibly painful, and so webster would duct-tape his feet as well to sort of close those cracks and keep them together. >> narrator: there were several herniated discs, a broken vertebra, torn rotator cuff and separated shoulder. >> his teeth were falling out. his body... he had cellulitis, his heart was getting enlarged. >> you know, he was supergluing his teeth back into his head, and he actually made that work. i mean, i think dad's the only person who could actually have a medical problem like that and decide to fix it with superglue. >> narrator: then there was the matter of webster's forehead. >> webster's forehead was essentially fixed to its scalp. the skin on his forehead had built up almost a shelf of scar tissue from the continuous pounding of his head into other people. >> narrator: webster's death certificate made omalu suspect
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he may have suffered from a brain disorder. >> when i opened up his skull, in my mind, i had a mental picture of what his brain would look like based on my education. i was expecting to see a brain with alzheimer's disease features, so a shriveled, ugly-looking brain. but upon opening his skull, mike's brain looked normal. >> he didn't understand why that would be, but he became more and more curious. it became sort of like his little private mission. >> narrator: dr. omalu wanted to fix the brain, preserve it in a chemical bath for further study. >> i said, "let me fix this brain. let me spend time with this brain. there is something... something doesn't match." i remember the technician telling me, he said, "what are you fixing the brain for? that brain is normal."
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>> and omalu becomes very firm in that moment, and he says, "fix the brain. i want you to fix the brain." >> narrator: what omalu could not see was that hidden inside webster's brain was evidence of a chronic disease. >> and that decision would change the nfl, because if webster's brain had not been examined, i don't honestly think that we would be where we're at today. >> narrator: steve fainaru and his brother mark fainaru-wada are investigative reporters. steve has a pulitzer prize for reporting in iraq. mark broke the barry bonds steroids story. for frontline, espn and in their own book, they've been investigating how the nfl has handled evidence that football may be destroying the brains of nfl players. >> i think in the simplest form, one major piece of our reporting just revolves around the simple question of what did the nfl know and when did it know it.
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>> narrator: the nfl would not cooperate with the fainaru brothers, nor would it talk to frontline. >> we went to new york to meet with them and say, "look, this is what we're doing. we'd like you to participate. we'd like you to make available these various people." and the nfl's message was, "sorry, we're not going to help you." >> narrator: but they continued to report the story, beginning with mike webster's career in the nfl. >> there's almost a darwinian quality about the nfl. webster wanted to prove to the world that he was going to be the toughest, and he did anything that he possibly could to do that. >> narrator: webster's sunday afternoons were spent on the line of scrimmage, brutal territory known as the pit. >> he had violence in him. he could explode into the player. every play was a fight. >> narrator: webster's favorite weapon was his head. >> when he would fire off the ball, he's coming to block me,
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and if i'm not ready for him, you know, he's going to pancake me, you know, he's going to hurt me. >> narrator: hall of fame linebacker for the new york giants harry carson went to war with mike webster. >> and so i have to meet force with force. all of my power is coming from my big rear end and my big thighs into my forearm, and i hit him in the face. i have to stun him, get my hands on him, throw him off when i see where the ball is going. and when i hit him in the face, his head is going back. he's going forward, but all of a sudden, his head is going back and his brain is hitting up against the inside of his skull. >> narrator: for mike webster, the head hits just kept on coming for 17 years. >> you have to survive, so you learn the methods to survive and be the best at surviving in that
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environment the minute you put your pads on. you're only one play away from getting seriously injured. >> narrator: for webster and others on the field, physical injuries went with the territory. >> i mean, it's affected my life, it surely has, but i'm not out there crying about it. i know that i went to war, and i came out of the battle with what i got. and you know, that's the way it is. that's the way mike webster would say it too, i'm sure he would. i mean, we battled in there, and this is the result of it right here, sitting here looking at you. >> narrator: but what otto and others do not know is whether football has also caused injuries they cannot see: the result of what they called "getting their bell rung."
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>> oh, did they hit him that time! his helmet went off. >> i don't know how he held onto that. sammy white, well, he did, a remarkable catch with skip thomas and jack tatum jackknifing him as he caught the ball for a first down on the oakland 45-yard line. >> narrator: in 1991, mike webster left football. soon, he and his family would come to believe those hits to the head had taken a devastating toll. >> mike wasn't mike. he was angrier quicker than before and didn't have the patience to have the kids on his lap or take a walk with the kids, like he didn't have that stamina physically. >> narrator: over the years, he became increasingly confused. >> he would forget, you know, which way the grocery store was, which way it was to go home. he actually broke down in tears in front of me a couple of times because he couldn't get his thoughts together and he couldn't keep them in order. >> narrator: at home, there were bouts of rage. >> he took a knife and slashed all his football pictures.
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they were all destroyed and gone and broken glass, and they were all down. it wasn't mike. >> narrator: they'd been college sweethearts, but 27 years and four children later, mike and pam webster's marriage ended. >> we didn't understand what was happening. you're just trying to get by in this storm. i mean, your money's gone, your pride's gone, our bills are all overdue, our house is getting foreclosed, all the security is gone. all those parameters are removed. so everything's crumbling. >> narrator: once one of pittsburgh's greatest football heroes, webster began living out of a pickup truck. >> i'd come outside sometimes and just see him sitting in the truck and it would be freezing, and he'd just be sitting there, looking miserable. he'd say, "the worst thing is i'm actually getting to the point where sometimes, or if i don't have my medicine," he said, "i'm cold and i don't realize that i can fix it
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by putting a jacket on." >> narrator: webster was often unable to sleep. >> he had a lot of pain and he hasn't slept for days, so he asked me, said, "sunny, can you tase me?" and i'm like, "what does that mean?" so he pulls out this stun gun and goes, "bzz, bzz." i'm like, "mike, that's not healthy." he said, "but i haven't slept nothing." he said, "all you got to do is tase me right here." and i'm like, "okay." i don't know, you know, he's my hero, i'm going to do whatever he tells me. so i tased him and he goes to sleep. i'm like, "wow!" >> narrator: for iron mike, tv interviews became impossible. >> no, i'm talking about... no, i'm trying to find... yeah, well everybody went through trauma as a kid, i'm not saying i was different than that, i'm just saying... the things we do to one another, okay... uh...
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hell, i don't know what i'm saying. i'm just tired and confused right now, that's why i say i can't really... i can't say it the way i want to say it. i could answer this real easy at other times, but right now i'm just tired. >> maybe the saddest i ever heard him say was when someone saw my dad and said, "aren't you mike webster?" and he said, "i used to be." i think that was really how he felt, because he really was, he wasn't the same person. it was like a picture of him that was just shattered into a million pieces. >> narrator: nearly broke, homeless and losing his mind, webster decided football had hurt him, and the nfl was going to pay for it. in 1997, he went to see a lawyer. >> the thing that struck me the most was how intelligent
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mike was. and the problem was that he just couldn't continue those thought patterns for longer than a 30-second period or a minute or two minutes. he would just go off on the tangents at that point. it was pretty obvious, actually, the first interview that he had some type of cognitive impairment. >> narrator: attorney bob fitzsimmons drew up a disability claim against the nfl. >> he began to assemble a case with webster to basically say that webster had suffered brain damage as a result of his 17-year career in the nfl. >> narrator: fitzsimmons pulled together webster's complicated medical history. >> so i took the binder of records and got four doctors together, four separate doctors, asking them, "does he have a permanent disability that's cognitive, and is it related to football?" >> narrator: webster's final application for disability contained over 100 pages and the definitive diagnosis of his
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doctors: football had caused webster's dementia. his claim for disability was filed with the national football league's retirement board. >> they were fighting it from the beginning, against just the common sense of, "here's this guy, look at him. he played for nearly 20 years in a brutal and punishing sport, and this is what's going on with him." why would you fight that? what possible motive? >> narrator: the league had its own doctor review webster's case. >> the nfl had not only hired an investigator to look into this, they also hired their own doctor and said, "hey, we want to evaluate mike webster." >> narrator: dr. edward westbrook examined him. >> dr. westbrook concurs with everything that the four other doctors have found and agrees that absolutely, there is no question that mike webster's injuries are football-related and that he appears to have
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significant cognitive issues, brain damage, as a result of having played football. >> narrator: the nfl retirement board had no choice: they granted webster monthly disability payments. >> " webster is currently totally and permanently disabled..." >> narrator: and buried in the documents, a stunning admission by the league's board: football can cause brain disease. >> "...his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player..." >> the nfl acknowledges that repetitive trauma to the head in football can cause a permanent disabling injury to the brain. >> narrator: the admission would not be made public until years later, when it was discovered by the fainaru brothers. >> and that was a dramatic admission back in 2000, and in fact, when you talk about that later with fitzsimmons, he describes that as the sort of proverbial smoking gun. >> narrator: it was now in writing: the nfl's own retirement board linked playing
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football and dementia. at the time, it was something the league would not admit publicly, and webster felt he'd never received the acknowledgment that his years in the nfl had caused his problems. >> mike would call this his greatest battle. he'd say it was like david and goliath, over and over, because it was. he was taking on something that was bigger than him. he took on this battle for the right reasons. he was the right person to do it. unfortunately, it cost us everything. >> narrator: just two years later, in 2002, mike webster died. >> 15 seconds to air. stand by all cameras. ready with slow-motion... >> narrator: the first broadcast of monday night football in 1970 marked a turning point in the game's popularity and its revenues. >> take tape. (upbeat music playing) >> i think the nfl has done an incredible job at marketing
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itself and turning itself into a spectacle, a sort of cultural part of our lives. (lively music continues) >> it became an entertainment show. >> it became a happening. >> ♪ are you ready for some football? a monday night invasion... ♪ >> narrator: the glory and the violence of football was beamed into tens of millions of american living rooms during primetime. >> ♪ here come the hits, the bangs, ♪ the blocks and the spikes, 'cause all my rowdy friends drop in on monday night. ♪ >> people liked the violence of it. >> oh! >> you watch a pro football game and naturally, the biggest cheers are for the touchdowns, but the second-biggest cheers are for a nasty hit. >> narrator: the nfl's own highly crafted film productions
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celebrated the violence and the spectacle. (classical piano playing) >> on this down and dirty dance floor, huge men perform a punishing pirouette. (players grunting) the meek will never inherit this turf... (players grunting) ...because every play is hand-to-hand and body-to-body combat. >> nfl films captures the essence of football itself, that tension between the violence and the beauty. >> in the pit, there is more violence per square foot than anywhere else in sport. (players grunting) >> the sense of football as something powerful and elemental
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and mythic and epic. >> when you talk about big hitting safeties, the eagles' brian dawkins always emerges. >> we're gonna dominate this thing. respect is not given, it is earned! >> what the nfl would do was they would market tapes-- crash course, moment of impact, search and destroy-- in the context of describing the brutal nature of the violence of the nfl. >> narrator: but away from the glamorized hits, there was a darker side. superagent leigh steinberg saw it firsthand. >> i watched athletes i represented play with collapsed lungs. i watched them completely fight with doctors at every time to get into the game. i watched players deceive coaches on the sidelines when they were injured and run back into a game. >> narrator: the inspiration for the movie sports agent jerry maguire, steinberg was
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a powerhouse alongside the new nfl. >> he was very much a creature of this expanding juggernaut of the nfl. he ends up at one point representing 21 quarterbacks in the nfl, 21 starting quarterbacks in the nfl one year. >> narrator: in the early 1990s, steinberg represented one of football's top stars: dallas quarterback troy aikman. >> second and 14, passing down, coming up for aikman again... >> narrator: in 1994, during the nfc championship, aikman took a knee to the head. >> down he goes. stubblefield was there first. troy aikman took a knee to the head... >> you see it right here. it's dennis brown coming in, you see the knee right there, knee right on his helmet. >> narrator: aikman's concussion was bad enough that he could not return to the game. aikman was taken to a local hospital. >> i went to visit troy, who was sitting in a darkened hospital room all alone. >> the room is dark
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because aikman can't even stand looking into the light. it's this sort of surreal scene where the city is celebrating and the quarterback who won the game is in the hospital with his agent. >> he looked at me and he said, "leigh, where am i?" and i said, "well, you're in the hospital." and he said, "well, why am i here?" and i said, "because you suffered a concussion today." and he said, "well, who did we play?" and i said, "the 49ers." and he said, "did we win?" "yes, you won." "did i play well?" "yes, you played well." "and so what's that mean?" "it means you're going to the super bowl." >> five minutes later, they're sitting there, they're continuing to hang out, and aikman suddenly turns to steinberg and says, "what am i doing here?" and then next thing you know, they are reliving this conversation they'd had five minutes earlier. >> for a minute, i thought
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he was joking. and i went through the same sequence of answers again. and his face brightened and we celebrated again. maybe ten minutes passed. and he looked at me with the same puzzled expression and asked the same sequence of questions. it terrified me to see how tender the bond was between sentient consciousness and potential dementia and confusion was. >> third down and nine, young throws and that's incomplete. and... down... >> narrator: 49ers quarterback steve young was another one of leigh steinberg's clients. >> a sight that is the last thing in the world the 49ers
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would want to see. it looks almost as if he's out cold. >> well, i've been there. and there he is, he's up, that's a good sign. what i like is he wants to get up off the ground. >> look at this. he looks like he's out cold and now he's walking off. >> i remember thinking as i walked to the sidelines, "this is not good," you know? "this is just not the right thing to happen." >> narrator: it was young's seventh concussion. >> that's a sight we thought would be impossible. steve young apparently knocked cold, knocked out cold, walks off the field. >> narrator: he would never play again. >> if my knee is hurt, everyone knows it and i know it and we can go deal with it, and shoulders and... there's only one place in your body that you really don't understand, and people always say the brain is the last frontier. >> narrator: for steinberg, there was a growing recognition of just how dangerous the sport was.
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>> the damage was occurring every week, and i had people who i loved and cared for. and i intuitively knew that this was not just a football issue, that it was happening to football players in the pros, it was happening in college, it was happening in high school. it was happening to every player in every collision sport. so not only was it an issue for my clients, it was a huge societal issue. >> we have put football injuries on the american agenda tonight. >> playing with pain, increasingly the price of life in the national football league. >> we've heard so much recently on the danger of concussions in sports. >> this year, injuries in the national football league may be out of control. >> narrator: by the mid-'90s, the concussion crisis had made its way to nfl headquarters on park avenue in new york city. >> ...concern rapidly escalates of the long-term effects of taking hits to the head on the football field. >> narrator: nfl commissioner
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paul tagliabue orchestrated the league's response. >> obviously, it's an athletic competition... >> narrator: and tagliabue said he was skeptical about the risk from concussions, once calling the controversy the result of "pack journalism." >> concussions i think is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly. there is no increase in concussions, the number is relatively small. the problem is it's a journalist issue. >> this is the commissioner of the nfl saying that there's no concussion issue. >> if it was ignorance, they should have known. they should have known because the issue is so critical. >> narrator: still, tagliabue created a scientific committee, the mild traumatic brain injury committee: the mtbi. to lead it, he chose elliot pellman, the new york jets' team doctor, a firm believer that concussions were not a serious problem.
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>> and so you had this behind the scenes, this dynamic going on where you had a guy, elliot pellman, who very clearly believed that this wasn't a problem, it just wasn't a big problem for the nfl. >> narrator: to outsiders, the choice of pellman was unusual. he was not an expert in neurology and had no background in brain research. >> he went to a school in guadalajara. dr. pellman is not a neurosurgeon, he's not a neuro-anything. he's a rheumatologist. >> putting a rheumatologist in the head of a committee that arguably was going to have more influence over brain research than any particular institution in the country at the time was, i think a lot of people felt, surprising. >> narrator: most of pellman's committee was made up of nfl loyalists. nearly half the members were team doctors. >> if you're going to put together a blue ribbon committee to study brain trauma, it should
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have as its chair somebody who has that as a background: either a neurologist, neurosurgeon, neuropathologist, preferably a clinician. >> narrator: for years, pellman's committee would insist they were studying the problem, that the danger from concussions was overblown. >> the way the nfl handled this was for 15 years to do research that looks awfully like it was designed to say that the league was okay in doing what it was doing, which wasn't much, to protect players from the dangers of concussions. >> narrator: pellman's committee began writing a series of scientific papers, and in 2003, got the first of them published in the medical journal neurosurgery. >> those initial studies from the nfl were notorious in telling the world over and over and over again, "no, there is no relationship between hitting
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your head in football and later life problems. no, there is no relationship." >> narrator: the papers downplayed the risk of concussions... >> "mild tbis in professional football are not serious injuries." >> narrator: insisted that players could return to the same game after suffering a concussion. >> "return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury." >> narrator: denied players suffered any long-term problems from concussions sustained while playing football... >> "...that there was no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple mtbis..." >> narrator: and in one of the papers even suggested their research might apply to younger athletes, despite the fact they had not studied high school or college players. >> "it might be safe for college/high school football players to be cleared to return to play on the same day as their injury." >> they were making comments which were greatly at odds with prospective, double-blinded studies done at the college and the high school level that just weren't finding the same things. and that just didn't make sense to anyone that's a scientist.
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>> narrator: dr. robert cantu edited the journal's sports medicine section. the papers were published despite his objections. >> the papers that started to make statements about: multiple head injuries were not a problem in the nfl. if they went back into the same contest with a concussion, it didn't matter. if they got knocked out and went back into the same contest, it didn't matter, and there were no long-term psychological problems or cognitive problems in these athletes, in essence saying it wasn't a problem. >> narrator: dr. cantu says he took his concerns to the journal's editor in chief, dr. michael apuzzo. apuzzo was also a consultant for the new york giants. >> i said that i really think this data is flawed. i really think it shouldn't be published. he's the one that made the decision to publish papers, no matter whether the reviewers
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felt they should be published or not, no matter whether the section editor felt they should be published or not. >> narrator: mark lovell was a member of the committee and an author on some of the studies. he now admits there were problems with the research. >> i look back on some of the papers, yeah, i think i could have done it differently. i think the fault of the paper was it was maybe too early to be making those statements based on a fairly small sample of players, which is the major criticism of the study, which i think is a valid one. >> narrator: the nfl committee published 16 papers. neither dr. apuzzo, dr. pellman, nor commissioner tagliabue would speak to frontline about the papers. but in those articles, the league had issued its definitive denials. >> the closer you look, the less this holds up, but it did establish this kind of impressive-looking set of findings which pushed off the day of reckoning for the league.
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that's really what is happening here, right? during this whole run of research that's being published, the day of reckoning where the league has to answer to somebody about what it's doing about concussions just keeps getting pushed off and pushed off and pushed off. >> narrator: in pittsburgh, at just about this time, mike webster's brain tissue was being examined. dr. bennet omalu was studying the microscopic samples. >> i put the slides in and looked. "whoa." i had to make sure the slides were mike webster's slides. i looked again. (gasps) i looked again. i saw changes that shouldn't be in a 50-year-old man's brain, and also changes that shouldn't be in a brain that looked normal. >> he saw collections of tau protein, collections which shouldn't be there in someone of mike webster's age.
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and this is what jumped out at him as he looked at it through the microscope. >> narrator: dr. omalu believed he saw physical evidence of the long-term damage playing football could have on the brain. it was a scientific first. >> because after i looked at it over and over and over, i was convinced this was something. >> narrator: it was a disease never previously identified in football players: chronic traumatic encephalopathy-- cte. >> chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a disease, a progressive neuro-degenerative disease where the end stage leaves tau protein deposition in distinctive areas of the brain, in distinctive locations that separate this disease from any other, like alzheimer's or some other dementia. >> >> the tau is effectively closing in around the brain cells and choking them and it's impacting the way the brain is
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working and ultimately erupting in issues around memory, agitation, anger. >> narrator: omalu shared his evidence with leading brain researchers who confirmed his findings. then he submitted a scientific paper on the webster case to the one journal that seemed to be most interested in head injuries in football: neurosurgery. and dr. apuzzo accepted it. >> narrator: it was the first hard evidence that playing football could cause permanent brain damage. >> certainly we knew that if you got hit on the head so many times, maybe you had a 20% chance of having dementia pugilistica if you were a former professional boxer, but we didn't really relate that in a modern sport like football, in a helmeted sport, that it could lead to that. and that was the big discovery, i think. >> narrator: dr. omalu believed the national football league would want to know about his discovery. >> that was what i thought in my naïve state of mind.
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but unfortunately, i was... i was proven wrong. it wasn't meant to be that way. >> narrator: in a letter to the journal neurosurgery, dr. pellman and other members of the nfl's mtbi committee attacked dr. omalu's paper. >> "these statements are based on a complete misunderstanding of the relevant medical literature..." >> narrator: they even questioned whether mike webster was suffering from neurological problems. >> "there is inadequate clinical evidence that the subject had a chronic neurological condition..." >> the league officials, the doctors and scientists serving on the mtbi committee, not only disputed those findings, they went after dr. omalu with a vengeance. they publicly said he should retract his findings. >> narrator: the nfl doctors insisted dr. omalu was misunderstanding the science of brain injury. >> "we therefore urge the authors to retract their
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paper..." >> it's an extraordinary move under any circumstances. like, you don't try to get a paper retracted unless there's evidence of fraud or plagiarism or something like that. >> "omalu et al.'s description of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is completely wrong." >> they went after him with missiles, i mean, like a nuclear missile strike on a guy's reputation. they basically told him to go away and never come back. and that was just for starters. >> narrator: in the end, dr. omalu's paper was not retracted. and now omalu had another case. >> terry long killed himself by drinking anti-freeze... >> narrator: a second steeler had died. >> terry long committed suicide by drinking anti-freeze. >> terry long was young... >> narrator: and dr. omalu received his brain. >> i came to work one morning and everybody there said, "hey, we have another case for you." i said, "what are you talking about?" they said, "oh, terry long died." i'm like, "who's terry long?"
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they said, "oh, he's another nfl player. he died." >> narrator: long was an offensive lineman with the steelers for eight years. he battled in the pit alongside mike webster. >> he, like webster, his life had sort of fallen apart in a lot of ways. he had issues certainly during his career. >> he was a steroid user. he had been involved in some serious financial problems. >> and so ultimately, he committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. >> narrator: as he had for webster, dr. omalu sectioned part of long's brain and again had it stained. >> he ran the same test, same stains, found the same splotches. cte in this brain too. now two former steelers who had gone crazy about the same time. >> when i saw terry long's case... i became more convinced that
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this was not just an anomaly, a statistical anomaly. >> narrator: omalu submitted another paper to neurosurgery, this one about terry long. >> that caused the mtbi committee to say, "this is preposterous. this is not good science. this is still not something that we're buying into." >> if you read, pellman made statements like what i practice is not medicine, it's not science. they insinuated i was not practicing medicine, i was practicing voodoo. voodoo. (thunder rumbling) >> narrator: the nfl would not publicly sit down with dr. omalu, but one night in a private meeting, he brought his cte slides and finally met face-to-face with one of the nfl's doctors. >> and the nfl doctor at some point said to me, "bennet, do you know the implications
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of what you are doing?" i looked. he was on my left. i said, "yeah, i think i do." he said, "no, you don't." (laughing) so we continued talking, talking. at some point, he interrupted me again, "bennet, do you think you know the implications of what you are doing?" i said, "i think i do. i don't know." he said, "no, you don't." so we continued talking again. then a third time he interrupted me, and i turned to him and i said, "okay, why don't you tell me what the implications are?" he said, "okay, i'll tell you." he said, "if 10% of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football." (thunder rumbling) >> for the most part, people didn't want to believe
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it's true. they didn't want to admit to themselves or anybody else that our beloved sport, probably our most popular sport, could end up with brain damage. i didn't want to admit it to myself either. it was a hard message, a difficult message, a bad message, but it appeared to be true. (thunder rumbling) >> just minutes ago, owners of the 32 teams... >> narrator: then in new york, a change in the nfl's top leadership. >> the nfl will have a new commissioner... >> there's a changing of the guard at the national football league... >> narrator: in september of 2006, commissioner paul tagliabue stepped down. >> the right-hand man to tagliabue is running the show... >> tagliabue will be succeeded by roger goodell... >> narrator: his second- in-command and closest aide, roger goodell, took over. goodell had grown up in washington, the son of a united states senator from new york. early in his career, he worked as former commissioner pete rozelle's driver. >> he basically got his job
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by writing to the commissioner and saying, "please, i'd like to work in the nfl." >> narrator: it took goodell 24 years to work his way to the top. he was chief operating officer when the league's scientific committee sent those controversial papers to the journneurosurgery. >> here's a guy who spent more than half of his life in the nfl and more than anyone should be acutely aware of sort of the dangers that are lurking in this problem. >> narrator: now goodell was fully in charge of the league's handling of the concussion crisis. he soon replaced the rheumatologist dr. elliot pellman and promoted the neurologist dr. ira casson. >> dr. ira casson, who is an expert, but an abrasive person who is contemptuous of the arguments that concussion can cause damage. >> narrator: casson had once joined pellman in attacking omalu's work. now one of casson's first moves:
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a public denial of omalu's conclusions. >> ira casson leads a team of nfl doctors who did a study of several hundred active players and reported that the concern over head injuries is overblown. >> is there any evidence, as far as you're concerned, that links multiple head injuries among pro football players with depression? >> no. >> dr. ira casson ends up with this very famous exchange that earns him the nickname "dr. no." >> with dementia? >> no. >> with early onset of alzheimer's? >> no. >> and ira casson was asked repeatedly, "is there any link between trauma, head trauma, and the kind of dementia we're seeing in these players?" and he says, "no, no, no, no." >> is there any evidence as of today that links multiple head injuries with any long-term problem like that? >> in nfl players? no.
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>> narrator: then, just one month later in chicago, a dramatic gesture from commissioner goodell. at an airport hotel, the league gathered the top nfl brass, team doctors and trainers. >> the nfl convenes a summit in the summer of 2007. >> about 200 people are gathered there, and running the show is ira casson. the stakes for the nfl are obvious. it's huge business. if the business is potentially lethal, then that's going to have major implications for the game. >> narrator: on this day, the commissioner would take a front row seat to listen to the best medical minds in the league. >> all the teams are present. all the teams had to send doctors and trainers. and the league's concussion people are there. >> narrator: they had even invited outside scientists who had become some of the league's biggest critics. but one person was missing. >> dr. omalu is excluded,
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just underscoring how they don't want to do business with him. >> i was not aware of it. nobody ever told me. dr. bailes called me and said, "the nfl is putting together a conference on cte, and you were not invited." >> he is shunned. i mean, it was a loud, just, "no, not you. yes, you're the guy with all the research, you're the guy who's published the papers, you're the guy who's got the brains, but no, you're not coming." >> narrator: former steelers team doctor and neurosurgeon julian bailes had become a true believer in cte and omalu. they were now research partners. he offered to present omalu's work to the group. >> so i presented and showed our data, which was four or five cases at that point. >> narrator: besides mike webster and terry long, omalu also found cte in the brains of andre waters
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and justin strzelczyk. bailes delivered omalu's message: playing football could cause permanent brain damage. >> it wasn't met with any broad acceptance, to say the least. >> julian bailes got up and talked about omalu's work, and while he's up there, casson is off to the side and he's rolling his eyes. he's clearly distressed by what he's hearing. and that was basically the idea that was conveyed by the nfl in that moment. >> there was skepticism, there was dismissiveness on his part. there was great doubt. >> narrator: as bailes left the meeting, he ran into new york times reporter alan schwarz. >> i remember julian being furious, absolutely furious at how they had been treated in that room. and there was clearly, among the nfl committee, there was just
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a very steadfast belief that, "this is not a problem, you guys don't know how to do research the way we do, and thank you for coming." >> i was not the bearer of good news probably in many people's minds. but this was not something that i made up. this was showing what the findings were. >> narrator: earlier, goodell had watched his mentor tagliabue downplay the concussion controversy. now he had heard firsthand how serious some respected scientists thought the issue was. >> roger goodell is on notice. the nfl has a serious issue around the question of concussions, around the issue of brain trauma, on the rising suggestion that there is a link between football and neuro-degenerative disease amongst its former players, and that there is a growing body of science that clearly
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establishes this link. >> narrator: outside the conference's closed doors, the new commissioner insisted that the nfl had the problem under control. >> the evidence is that our doctors are making excellent decisions. that's proven by the six-year study that we have and the research that's been done that looks at that issue intensively. >> narrator: the head of goodell's concussion committee, dr. ira casson, took on the critics. >> anecdotes do not make scientifically valid evidence. i am a man of science. i believe in empirically determined, scientifically valid data, and that is not scientifically valid data. >> narrator: casson insisted there was no evidence that football players were at risk for cte. >> in my opinion, the only scientifically valid evidence of a chronic encephalopathy in athletes is in boxers and in some steeplechase jockeys. >> narrator: dr. casson declined to be interviewed by frontline. >> this venerable stadium
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will be a wild scene tonight... >> narrator: and as the teams took the field just a few months later in the fall of 2007, the league's definitive statement on brain injury was given to every single player in a pamphlet. >> the cover says, "what is a concussion?" it said, "if i get a concussion, am i further at risk for long-term problems?" and the answer was, and i'm virtually quoting, "research has not shown that there are any long-term consequences to concussions in nfl players as long as each injury is treated properly." >> the message was that football is safe to your brain. that was the message. "don't worry about it." >> narrator: the commissioner and the league had successfully held the line, denying the dangers of football. >> they refused to listen to people who didn't share their
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opinions about the research, and it was very much putting a stake in the ground, saying everybody else is wrong. and that's what they did. >> narrator: shunned by the league, bruised by the struggle and looking to make a change, dr. omalu left pittsburgh. he moved to lodi, california. >> he ends up in the dust bowl of north central california, and he's working as a medical examiner there, as far removed from the nfl as anybody could be and trying to figure out how to stay in it. >> i wish i never met mike webster. cte has dragged me into the politics of science, the politics of the nfl. you can't go against the nfl. they'll squash you. i really sincerely wish
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it didn't cross my path of life, seriously. >> next time... frontlineinvestigation of the nfl's concussion crisis continues. >> they were in a very serious state of denial. >> so it was becoming almost impossible for the nfl to ignore. >> what does it mean for the future of football? >> an 18-year-old high school athlete with chronic traumatic encephalopathy-- that just shouldn't happen. >> your child could develop a brain injury as a result of playing football. >> don't miss the conclusion of "league of denial." >> go to and watch more of frontline's exclusive interviews with nfl players and dr. bennet omalu. >> the nfl, they'll squash you. >> explore "concussion watch," our interactive database that's now in its fourth year of
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tracking nfl head injuries. stay current with our ongoing reporting on the nfl and concussions. visit us on youtube and connect to tfrontline community on facebook, twitter and >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. more information is available at additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at the wyncote foundation. and by the frontline journalism fund, with major
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support from jon and jo ann hagler. and additional support from scott nathan and laura debonis. captioned by media access group at wgbh >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our website at frontline"league of denial" is available on dvd. to order, visit, or call 1-800-play-pbs. frontline is also available for download on itunes.
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the death of osama bin laden marked the end of a long battle. but not the war. in north africa, a new brand of al qaeda is growing bolder and more empowered every day. new people, with new grievances and new tactics. but the same commitment to international jihad. this is the story of a group of foreign workers who came face to face with a terrifying new branch of al qaeda... man: there was no more hope. we were all going to die. narrator: unsuspecting targets in an audacious and brutal attack on an energy facility deep in the sahara desert. man: they need war, they got it, we deliver to them.


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