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tv   Frontline  PBS  September 30, 2014 10:00pm-11:31pm EDT

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>> narrator: tonight, with the nfl again in the news, frontline returns to the epic story of football's concussion crisis. >> these players come down with dementia and then alzheimer's and then they're gone. >> narrator: a major frontline investigation of what the nfl knew and when it knew it. >> the level of denial was just profound. >> we strongly deny those allegations that we withheld any information or misled the players. >> we don't know who is at risk for it. we don't know if concussion in and of itself is what causes the abnormalities. >> narrator: a decades-long battle between scientists, players and the nation's most powerful sports league.
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>> you can't go against the nfl. they will squash you. >> narrator: next, "league of denial: the nfl's concussion crisis." >> i'm really wondering if every single football player doesn't have this. >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from: and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontline is 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 macfound.org. additional support is provided by the park foundation. dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the ford foundation. working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide. at fordfoundation.org.
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the wyncote foundation. and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. (whistles 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 getting out to 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.
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>> everybody loves everybody when you win. >> the drive has used a lot of time. here's a roll-out. bradshaw fires... touchdown! 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
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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. >> 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.
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>> 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. 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
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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." 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.
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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 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
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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 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.
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>> 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." >> 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
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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. >> 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."
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>> 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, 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.
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>> 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 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. >> oh, did they hit him that time! his helmet went off. >> i don't know how he held onto that. >> narrator: but what they did not know is whether football had caused invisible injuries to their brains. >> ...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.
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>> 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. 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,
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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 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,
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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... 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
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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, 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 itself and turning itself into a spectacle, a sort of cultural part of our lives.
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(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: but away from the glamorized hits, there was a darker side.
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super-agent 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 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.
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>> 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 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."
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"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 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
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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 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
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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. >> 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
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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 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.
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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. >> 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.
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>> 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 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,
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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 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
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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. >> 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
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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 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.
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>> 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. 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."
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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. 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.
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>> 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 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. it was the first hard evidence that playing football could cause permanent brain damage. >> certainly we knew that if you
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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. but unfortunately, i was... i was proven wrong, you know. 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.
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>> "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 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. >> if you read, pellman made statements like what i practice
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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 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
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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 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) >> 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...
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>> 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 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.
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>> 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: 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
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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. >> 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.
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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, 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
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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, omalu had also found cte in the brains of terry long, andre waters 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
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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 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
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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 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.
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>> 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. 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 sort of stay in it. >> i wish i never met mike webster. cte has dragged me into
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the politics of science, the politics of the nfl. you can't go against the nfl. they'll squash you. i really sincerely wish it didn't cross my path of life, seriously. >> second and three, ball on the three... in motion... wide open... touchdown! >> the brains are precious cargo. >> now back to the third, and he goes outside... >> we have to get the brain usually within hours of the death. >> touchdown. >> play action... going deep... >> you have a brain that's intact; it's been removed from the upper spinal cord. >> picks it up,
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looks for running room. he's at the 40, he's at the 45, midfield, he's gonna go! desean jackson! >> narrator: it is the brain of a former football player. >> this is a process that is awe-inspiring in the old- fashioned sense of the word. >> you have the responsibility of actually possessing somebody's brain, which is probably the best representation of who they were. you really treat it with the utmost respect. >> from a scientific perspective, there's this secret that's being unlocked. >> we take it out, we weigh it, we photograph it, all the external surfaces. >> the attitude is so careful about that this is a person
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that's being delivered into their care. >> i never forget that the brain is the human being. i feel very privileged that someone has trusted me with this duty. >> narrator: in 2008, dr. ann mckee was a leading alzheimer's researcher. >> this is what i do. i look at brains, i'm fascinated by it. i can spend hours doing it. in fact, if i want to relax, that's one way i can relax. >> narrator: then one day, she received a phone call from the boston university medical school. >> i called her and said, "are you interested in looking at the brains of former football players?" and she didn't drop a beat and said, "are you kidding?" i had no idea that she was a super football fan. >> i was born with football. my brothers, my dad.
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i played football when i was a kid. i mean, you know, it was part of life, it's part of growing up. it's, you know, it's a way of life, so i get it. >> narrator: now dr. mckee was joining a team of researchers to build on dr. omalu's discovery. >> she's learned a little bit about the work that had previously been done on this issue by omalu and others, and she's eager to find some brains. >> narrator: mckee and colleagues from boston university were determined to examine as many brains as they could. and this man knew how to get them. >> chris nowinski shows up and says, "look, i'll find the brains for you, i'll bring them to you, and they're going to be football players. are you interested?" and she says, "absolutely." you know, she describes this as the greatest collision on earth for her. >> narrator: for nowinski, the issue of cte is personal. he worries he has it. >> i'd be a fool not to worry about cte personally. and i took as much brain trauma as anybody. i think i have more than enough reason to believe that i'm going to be fighting this myself, i am fighting it.
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>> narrator: at harvard, nowinski was a punishing tackler. he suffered countless head injuries. then, instead of the nfl, he became a professional wrestler. >> he ends up with the nickname chris harvard, the persona of this sort of snobbish wrestler who's smarter than all the fans. >> you people should be grateful to have someone of my intelligence in your presence. >> narrator: for chris harvard, the performance often ended with a blow to the head. >> chris harvard landed on his head quite a bit. you know, as much as wrestling is performance, there's a very, very small margin of error. and especially when you're learning the thing, you fall on your head a lot. >> narrator: nowinski began to have violent nightmares and migraine headaches. >> and i said, "there's something really wrong with me." and the headache didn't go away for five years.
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>> narrator: brain trauma became an obsession. >> what motivated me every day was the fact that my head was killing me and i knew that i felt awful and i knew that i wasn't the only person, but i was a person in a position to make a difference. >> narrator: he would take on the task of finding brains of former football players for dr. mckee. >> they call him the designated brain chaser, like that's his job, to go out and get the brains. >> narrator: nowinski made the hard calls, asking families to donate the brain of a deceased loved one. >> at the beginning, when i first kind of got up the nerve to do it, i wrote down a script and i prepared and i practiced, mentally preparing myself for wandering into someone's life like this. >> narrator: almost right away, nowinski secured a portion of the brain of a 45-year-old former tampa bay buccaneer, tom mchale.
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>> tom mchale was a brilliant guy, went to cornell, had been playing football since a kid. his brilliance intellectually was matched by being an incredible athlete. >> narrator: tom and lisa mchale had three sons. once his career was over, mchale ran a successful chain of restaurants. but then, uncharacteristically, trouble. >> restlessness, irritability and discontent describe tom to a t today, but no way is it anywhere near the man i had known and the man i had been married to for years. >> the change was so diabolical. he became a drug addict, he became depressed, he became... had irate moments of violent temper. >> narrator: mchale's addictions spiraled out of control: painkillers, cocaine. >> i remember so clearly
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him looking at me-- and this is going back, you know, in the final months of his life-- and saying, "lisa, when i look in your eyes, all i see is disappointment." and i honestly don't know whether he was seeing my disappointment, or whether it was his own disappointment that he was seeing reflected back. but it pains me to think of how much that hurt him. >> a former tampa bay buccaneer was found dead this morning... >> former tampa bay buccaneers player... >> narrator: he had died of an overdose. dr. mckee had read dr. omalu's research, but she wanted to see for herself. >> we dissect and section his brain, do a whole series of microscopic slides, look at it with all sorts of different stains for different things, and then come to a conclusion about what the diagnosis is. >> narrator: what she saw was that tell-tale protein tau. >> this is a 45-year-old
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with terrific disease. i mean, he had florid disease. he has tau in all these regions of his brain. >> narrator: dr. mckee had examined thousands of brains, but the location of the damage from cte was different. >> i remember my feeling. i was scared. i was really scared. it really was a turning point. it was a new understanding that, "hey, this might be bigger than we think." >> narrator: dr. mckee soon had three brains, all with cte, but rather than just publish in scientific journals, chris nowinski was determined to get the word out. >> nowinski, who is not a scientist, says, "there are people getting hit here. if we speak up now, we may be able to, if not save lives, at least prevent the damage that we are seeing on ann mckee's table."
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>> narrator: nowinski decided to take on the nfl in a very public way: at their biggest event, the 2009 super bowl. >> ♪ all right, what a night it's finally here. ♪ super bowl sunday's kicking into high gear... ♪ >> narrator: the glitz and glamour of the nfl production machine was in full gear, developed over decades. highly choreographed. >> ♪ running and hitting with all their might... ♪ >> narrator: a national event with a carefully crafted story. >> ♪ the whole world's ready, kick that ball off the tee... cause super bowl rocks on nbc ♪ >> narrator: in tampa, before the big game, nowinski and mckee tried to crash the festivities by holding a press conference. >> this is the genius of nowinski, really, i mean, right? i mean, "we're going to present her findings. where do we want to announce
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that?" "oh, let's go to tampa bay where the super bowl's about to play out, where there's 4,000 media members who are there waiting to watch." >> and i can tell you, i have examined thousands of brains and this is not a normal part of aging. this is not something you normally see in the brain. >> they were saying, "football caused this, this is an issue." i think mckee uses the word "crisis." she says, "this is a crisis and anybody who doesn't believe it is in denial." >> narrator: also on the panel, nowinski's other star, lisa mchale. >> eight months ago, i lost my best friend, my college sweetheart and my husband of 18 years... >> narrator: lisa mchale had decided to go public with her husband's story. >> i never hesitated to be public with tom's findings because i was so fully blown away to know that tom could have had the kind of injury he had to his brain and that it could have
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been caused by football, and i said, "my god, of course, this is information that i would have liked to have had." >> narrator: and after her husband's death, mchale decided to become an advocate for dr. mckee's research. >> he is now the sixth confirmed case of cte among former nfl players. and bearing in mind that only six former nfl players have been examined for cte, i find these results to be not only incredibly significant, but profoundly disturbing. >> narrator: but that day, there were few reporters listening. >> there were thousands of reporters across the street and probably two dozen were willing to walk across and learn about cte. >> that was the shocking part. you know, here we were in the midst of everything and this potentially giant story was being told, and virtually no one was there. >> everyone, thank you so much
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for your time, and we're available if you want to stick around. >> narrator: nowinski's press conference was no match for the show the nfl was putting on across town. >> the build-up is over, and away we go in super bowl 43. >> narrator: then, one of the most watched television broadcasts in history. a 30-second ad sold for $3 million. >> it's all right, we're here now! >> narrator: it was the crowning event for a year in which the nfl earned almost $8 billion. >> here's the run-up, and super bowl 43 is underway with the flashbulbs a-poppin'. >> the league is this massive force financially. the super bowl is a spectacle. tv is paying huge money to televise the sport. >> he gets it away quickly and finds the tight end over the middle, and it's heath miller. >> the nfl is broadcast over five networks. espn, where we work, their new contract with the nfl is worth
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almost $2 billion a year. >> and he hits anquan boldin! >> so they're basically paying around $120 million per game. that's like the budget of a harry potter movie every week, week in, week out. >> and the pittsburgh steelers become the first franchise in history to win six super bowls. >> ladies and gentlemen, here to present the vince lombardi trophy, the commissioner of the national football league, roger goodell. >> well, some said that we could not top last year's super bowl, but the steelers and cardinals did that tonight. >> narrator: presiding over it all, the most powerful man in sports. >> all the steelers fans, congratulations on your sixth world championship. >> narrator: he sat atop a multibillion-dollar empire that he was determined to protect. >> one of his mantras was to protect the shield, the nfl shield; to protect the integrity of the game.
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>> narrator: but now, the league might face huge lawsuits and a tarnished image if dr. mckee's findings about cte held up. not long after her trip to tampa, dr. mckee received a phone call. >> i was called by ira casson. and i remember thinking, "why is ira casson calling me?" >> she's intimidated from the start, because she knew enough about ira casson, she said, to know that he wasn't necessarily a friend. >> and he wanted me to come to the nfl office and present the data. >> narrator: that may, mckee and nowinski arrived at nfl headquarters. >> we head on up to a very, very fancy conference room, nice wood paneling, jerseys and trophies in the glass, and it was probably 15 members of the committee. >> and one of the first things mckee notices is that there's
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only one other woman in the room, and it's not a doctor, it's a lawyer. >> a lawyer is not there to offer medical advice, and a lawyer is not there to offer competitive athletic advice, either. a lawyer is there to figure out what the league needs to do to defend itself against a storm that may or may not come but the league has to be ready to fight. >> i'm up against a lot of doubters. i'm up against people who don't think that any of this holds any water. so fine, i'm just going to show them what i have. and they kept interrupting. >> narrator: dr. ira casson and others on the committee expressed their skepticism that playing football was the cause of cte. >> very, very quickly, she got serious pushback from ira casson and the rest of the committee. >> narrator: indianapolis colt team physician dr. henry feuer was one of the nfl doctors at the meeting. >> i just have a problem. ann mckee, she cannot tell me
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where it's starting. we don't know the cause and effect. we don't know that right now. we don't know the incidence. >> narrator: the committee members believed dr. mckee could not answer two important questions. causation: did football cause cte? and prevalence: how many players had it? >> she was seeing only those that were in trouble, and we know that there are thousands roaming around that are not having problems. so i think that's where we may have had an issue. >> i think we're very early in the evolutionary understanding of cte. a certain percentage of the individuals diagnosed with this have had steroid abuse, alcohol abuse, other substances abuses. we don't know the concussion history in many of these. and there may be other confounding factors in terms of the genetics that we simply don't understand. >> they were convinced it was wrong, and i felt that they were
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in a very serious state of denial. >> i remember at one point one of the nfl doctors asking, "couldn't you be misdiagnosing this? these all look like they could be frontal temporal dementia." and ann said, "well, actually, i was on the nih committee that defined how you diagnose that disease, so no, they're definitely different diseases." like, she had the experience and they didn't. >> narrator: and according to dr. mckee, there was something else-- something familiar about the way the nfl committee was acting. >> i don't want to get into the sexism too much, but sexism plays a big role when you're a doctor of my age who's come up in the ranks with a lot of male doctors. sexism is part of my life. and getting in that room with a bunch of males who already thought they knew all the answers, more sexism. i mean, you know, it was like, "oh, the girl talked. now we can get back into some serious business."
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>> i don't know why she feels that way. i thought that she presented herself, as i recall-- and it's been several years-- that there was something in her manner. and i think she's a brilliant woman. she's done a great job. there was just something about the way she said it, and not that everybody was looking down, it was just, um... >> narrator: dr. feuer insists dr. mckee is mistaken about how she was treated. >> if we, for some reason, came across as being disrespectful, then i would say that everybody else we interviewed over the 15 years must have felt the same way. that's all i can say about that. and i feel strongly about that, too. we would listen, and "thank you," and that's it. whether she wanted us to start yap... you know, i don't know where she's coming from on that. >> narrator: the meeting had changed nothing.
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at the same time, another force was also causing trouble for the nfl and the commissioner: the wives and widows of players with cte. >> i don't think anyone else but the wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and ann mckee could have forced this issue into american consciousness. >> narrator: eleanor perfetto was one of them. her husband, ralph wenzel, had played for the pittsburgh steelers. >> as the disease progressed, he went from being ill but fairly functional to getting to the point where he could no longer, you know, dress or feed himself. and in the last year and a half to two years before he died, he couldn't even walk anymore. >> narrator: she'd spent years trying to get help from the nfl and its players association. then perfetto took matters
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into her own hands. she showed up uninvited to a league meeting about caring for retired players. >> there's going to be a meeting that the commissioner is holding with former players. and her husband, suffering from dementia, obviously can't be represented there by anybody but her. and she's told she's not allowed to enter the room. >> narrator: it was the commissioner himself who kept perfetto out. >> and i said, "i'd like to attend this meeting." and he said, "no, you can't attend. it's only for players. it's not for anyone else." and i said, "but my husband is a player who is severely disabled, and he can't be here right now." >> narrator: nevertheless, the commissioner said no. >> the issue is head injuries among players and if those injuries can lead... >> narrator: as the concussion story received more attention, the coverage helped spark interest in the nation's capital. >> congress considers concussions in the nfl... >> congress is getting into the game. they're looking into the long-term... >> good morning, the committee
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will come to order. >> congress is looking into the long-term impact of concussions... >> congress saw it as a way to put the nfl's concussion policies on trial, in the court of public opinion. >> narrator: the commissioner arrived like a celebrity, the star attraction at the hearing and the focus of all the cameras. >> goodell is asked point-blank if he stands by the idea that concussions don't hurt pro football players. and he can't answer. >> you're obviously seeing a lot of data and a lot of information that our committees and others have presented with respect to the linkage, and the medical experts should be the one to be able to continue that debate. >> i just asked you a simple question. what's the answer? >> the answer is, the medical experts would know better than i would with respect to that. >> his consistent response to questions was, "i'm not a scientist, and any questions about the long-term effects of concussion or head trauma in nfl players are better addressed to scientists." >> narrator: one at a time, committee members
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went after goodell. >> we have heard from the nfl time and time again. you are always studying, you are always trying, you are hopeful. i want to know, what are you doing now? >> the nfl sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-'90s when they kept saying, "no, there is no link between smoking and damage to your health or ill health effects." >> the last thing the league wanted to be dealing with in that moment was the analogy to big tobacco. there's nobody in america who doesn't know what that means. that means denial. >> you have the commissioner of the nfl who's being hauled before congress to answer why his own research arm has been denying, since 1994, that football causes brain damage when everybody from the new york timto former nfl players to the respected research scientists are saying, in fact, the opposite is true. >> talk about nfl owners as
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being like tobacco executives... >> but i think it's seen as being plausible... >> the nfl, similar to what the tobacco industaged in... >> narrator: at dr. mckee's research lab, the brain bank business was booming. >> there were nfl players out there that were talking to their wives and saying, "i think this might be something. i'm experiencing some problems and i'm thinking i should donate my brain to this work." >> narrator: by 2010, dr. mckee had looked at the brains of 20 nfl players. she had found cte in 19 of them. it was during that time that a brain arrived that would dramatically raise the stakes. >> owen thomas to me was a critical case. here we have a 21-year-old who was a hard-hitting lineman from the age of nine on. >> and then, seemingly out of nowhere, he decided to take his own life. never been diagnosed
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with a concussion, never had a problem in the world. >> narrator: owen thomas had hanged himself in his off-campus apartment. chris nowinski secured his brain for dr. mckee. without any history of diagnosed concussions, it seemed unlikely he had cte. >> i was fully prepared to see nothing. i remember late at night looking at the brain and thinking, "just going to knock this one off." and it just floored me. i just couldn't believe what i was seeing. >> narrator: such an advanced case of cte had never been found in such a young person. >> in, like, 20 spots in his frontal lobe. he's 21. he's so young. that changes the game to me. >> wrapped up and brought down by owen thomas. >> narrator: because he'd never had a diagnosed concussion,
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dr. mckee suspected thomas might have gotten cte from the everyday sub-concussive hits that are an inherent part of the game. >> another nice play by owen thomas. >> those sub-concussive hits, those hits that don't even rise to the level of what we call a concussion, or symptoms, just playing the game can be dangerous. >> the rock is home. a crucial matchup... >> mckee is saying, "look, this is very much an issue at the core of the game, of offensive lineman and defensive linemen pounding the crud out of each other on every single play, on every single down and every single practice, and there's no getting around that." >> narrator: it was a controversial theory that raised fundamental questions about the way the game was played. >> the human body was not created or built to play football. when you have force against force, you're going to have
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injuries. and i'm not talking about the knees and, you know, all of that stuff is a given. but from a neurological standpoint, you're going to have some brain trauma. >> narrator: harry carson has been studying the matter since he retired 25 years ago. >> you know, most people are keyed in on the big hit. but the little mini-concussions are just as dangerous because you might be sustaining six to ten, maybe a dozen of these hits during the course of a game. and if you're going up against top-flight players who are able to perfect those skills of hitting you upside the head or getting hit with a elbow, it's one of those things that at some point you're going to pay for it down the line. >> i really worry about my lineman brothers. i really worry for my
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running back brothers. i mean, that's the truth. you talk about a nefarious injury, one that you never feel until it's too late. so when i look back over 30 years associated with football, that's the thing that is most alarming to me. >> the way the game is played, i don't see how you can eliminate all of those routine hits that linemen make every play. how do you eliminate them and have the game still be football? >> narrator: dr. mckee, who had grown up loving football, has struggled with her feelings about the sport. >> i don't feel that i am in a position to make a proclamation for everyone else. >> if you had children who are eight, ten, 12,
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would they play football? >> eight, ten, 12? no, they would not. >> why? >> because the way football is being played currently that i've seen, it's dangerous. it's dangerous and it could impact their long-term mental health. you only get one brain. the thing you want your kids to do most of all is succeed in life and be everything they can be. and if there's anything that may infringe on that, that may limit that, i don't want my kids doing it. >> narrator: mckee's warnings about the danger of the game have made her the subject of sharp criticism. >> she's a lightning rod because people see her as the woman out to destroy football as we know it. probably the most hurtful charge that's been leveled against her is that she's crossed a line from scientist to activist.
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>> narrator: a number of prominent scientists believe she has overstated the dangers of playing football. >> there's a kind of polarization in that the bu group are clearly the advocates for cte research. but it's not the only issue. there are other issues that we've got to look at. "how common is this? how many brain traumas do you need to get this? is this something that everybody will get if they have enough brain trauma? or is it the result of steroid or drug abuse in a small number of nfl players?" we don't know. these are questions, not statements of fact. >> narrator: some researchers say dr. mckee has examined only a limited sample of players and too few brains to justify her conclusions. >> there has been a sense of fear that's been put into parents, that "maybe i shouldn't let my kids play sports." having said that, i still think it's something that we need
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to be concerned about. we just need more information on it in terms of what exactly is the incidence and the risk. nobody knows that at this point in time. it's still being debated, depends on who you listen to. >> those that have been conducting the autopsies are working with what they have to work with. i think that we need to learn more about these former athletes, learn more about them during their living years so that we can better understand what their neuro-cognitive function is like, what their emotional status is like. we just have to be careful not to say that this causes that and be able to connect those dots without having more prospective analysis. >> i'm not surprised that people don't believe me. they haven't done this work. they haven't looked at brain after brain after brain.
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i just feel that i guess the more cases we get, the more we persevere, the more they hear, eventually they'll change their mind. >> narrator: still, mckee and her colleagues at bu acknowledge there are limits to her research. >> not everyone who hits their head gets this disease, and so a critical question is why does one person get it and another person doesn't? there must be really important variables: genetics, things about the type of exposure to brain trauma people get. we need to figure those things out. >> narrator: dr. mckee admits she's seeing only a small sample. >> i think to be truthful, even a selection bias in an autopsy sample, even if the family of an individual who is affected is much more likely to donate their brain than a person who had no symptoms whatsoever, given that, we have still been just ridiculously successful in getting examples of this disease.
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>> narrator: dr. mckee has now examined the brains of 79 former nfl players. 76 had cte. >> we have an enormously high hit rate. i mean, that would be extraordinary with any other disease, to be able to pull in that many cases just that were suspected. so i think the incidence and prevalence have to be a lot higher than people realize. >> narrator: to her, it may be the beginnings of an epidemic. >> i think it's going to be a shockingly high percentage. i'm really wondering where this stops. i'm really wondering on some level if every single football player doesn't have this. >> narrator: for his part, commissioner goodell continued to insist the evidence is not conclusive. >> i'm going to ask you this question because some widows of some nfl players have asked me to ask you: do you now acknowledge that there is a link
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between the game and these concussions that people have been getting, some of these brain injuries? >> well, bob, that's why we're investing in the research, so that we can answer the question, what is the link? what causes some of the injuries that our players are still dealing with? and we take those issues very seriously. >> there is no acknowledging a link exists. there's, "the science is still emerging and we're really going to try and do long-term studies on this, and we're going to figure out whether there's a link." >> we're going to let the medical individuals make those points. we are going to give them the money, advance that science. in the meantime, we have to do everything we can to advance the game and make sure it's safe. >> he said, almost identically to what he had said before congress back in 2009, which was, "we're going to let the medical people decide that." >> narrator: almost two decades after the nfl founded its first scientific committee to research the issue, the league had insisted the evidence of a link between cte and football
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is unclear. >> it sure looks like it was just a relentless and endless delaying action. year after year after year, at crisis after crisis after crisis, the concussions committee and its members assured the public that the league was looking into this. the league actually never got around to looking at it in any kind of valid way. this committee was founded in 1994. maybe there should be better evidence by now. >> narrator: as the concussion crisis deepened, the commissioner faced yet another challenge: a lawsuit brought by more than 4,500 retired players. >> the threat to the nfl from this litigation was existential. the threat was that the league was going to have to pay out in the billions with a "b," not millions with an "m." >> narrator: about one-third of nfl veterans, including some of the biggest former stars, claimed the nfl had fraudulently concealed the danger to their brains.
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>> the main allegations here are... it's very simple. there was a very severe hazard that was present in professional football, and it was a little secret. the nfl knew it, but the players certainly didn't know it. >> narrator: on the other side, the nfl's lawyers. >> representing the national football league will be paul clement, who will be flanked by anastasia danias, she's from the national football league, and also beth wilkinson from paul weiss... >> narrator: they insisted the league had done nothing wrong. >> let's be clear. we strongly deny those allegations that we withheld any information or misled the players. and if we have to defend this suit, as paul was alluding to, we will do that and be able to make those factual allegations. but we absolutely deny those allegations. >> narrator: but away from the cameras, the two sides were engaged in tense court-ordered
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negotiations. >> the players, initially, they were requesting around $2 billion or a little more than $2 billion, and what we've been told is the nfl was offering virtually nothing-- they were offering "peanuts," as one person said. >> narrator: the players believed they had significant leverage-- a threat to the nfl. >> the threat was that the doctors and trainers, neuropsychologists, maybe owners, maybe commissioners and ex-commissioners, were going to have to testify under oath as to what they knew and when. >> historic settlement today, with the nfl... >> narrator: then, with the 2013 football season about to begin, a surprise announcement. the league agreed to a $765 million settlement with players that would avoid a prolonged trial. but it left one big question unanswered. >> there's no admission whatsoever of guilt by the league. the league makes it very clear they're not admitting any guilt, that there's no acknowledgment of any causation between football and the possibility of long-term brain damage. and that was a prominent part
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of the settlement. >> i don't think we needed a trial to know that the nfl conducted a lot of shoddy research. and it wasn't hypothetical. it wasn't a supposition. what the trial would have done was bring out that evidence. you didn't need the trial to know that there was something wrong there, but the details of how they went about it, that's what's going to stay locked away. >> everyone now has a better sense of what damage you can get from playing football. and i think the nfl has given everybody 765 million reasons why you don't want to play football. >> narrator: this fall, after a federal judge found the settlement inadequate, the nfl agreed to pay even more, as much as a billion dollars.
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and in court filings, nfl actuaries admitted that nearly a third of former players could develop neurological problems. >> erenberg touchdown! touchdown, pittsburgh steelers! >> listen to this crowd! >> narrator: and now, with growing controversy surrounding the nfl, fundamental questions remain about the league, the game and the players who give their lives to it. >> fumbled the ball! and... let's see. minnesota has it! (crowd cheering) >> you've got the most popular sport in america basically on notice. you've got the very real question being asked of whether the nature of playing the sport exposes you to brain damage and lots of science that suggests that it can. >> an awesome, physical team were the steelers today. >> and that raises all sorts of questions for guys who are playing in the league, guys who played in the league, moms, kids, all of us who love football.
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it's pretty scary. it's a big deal. >> and the future opponents are going to have some trouble. (crowd cheering) >> ofrontline... >> my house was in smoke. my little girl was crying, "daddy, daddy!" >> he set that fire and killed those kids. >> he wouldn't plead guilty. >> he got exactly what he deserved the day they put him to death. >> this is an accidental fire. >> fire does not lie. >> the state of texas executed a man for a crime they couldn't prove. >> "death by fire." watch frontline. >> go to pbs.org/frontline and watch more of frontline's exclusive interviews with nfl players and their families and the scientists. explore "concussion watch," our interactive database that's now in its third year of tracking every official nfl
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head injury. and stay current with frontlinereporting on the nfl and concussions. then connect to the frontline community on youtube, facebook, twitter and pbs.org/frontline. >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from: and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontline is 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 macfound.org. additional support is provided by the park foundation. dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the ford foundation. working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide. at fordfoundation.org. the wyncote foundation. and by the frontline journalism
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fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our website at pbs.org/frontline. frontline's "league of denial" is available on dvd. to order, visit shoppbs.org, or call 1-800-play-pbs. frontline is also available for download on itunes.
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. good evening from los angeles i'm tavis smily. tonight a conversation with republican strategist david frum about what it would take for the republicans to gain control of both houses of congress. the author of six books, including "combat conservatism." he has a warning for republicans then we'll turn to a columnist alex tizon whose "big little man" takes a deep dive into the asian american men and examines why maniy of the negative ste o stereotypes surround them to this day. those conversations coming up right now.

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