Dig Deeper: Investigating the NFL’s Concussion Crisis

This is a Dec. 21, 2008, file photo showing grass and dirt flying as Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, left, is hit by Tennessee Titans' Cortland Finnegan (31) as Ward scores a touchdown on a 21-yard reception in the third quarter of an NFL football game in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Russell, File)

This is a Dec. 21, 2008, file photo showing grass and dirt flying as Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, left, is hit by Tennessee Titans' Cortland Finnegan (31) as Ward scores a touchdown on a 21-yard reception in the third quarter of an NFL football game in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Russell)

October 8, 2013

Since 2007, when headlines began to link the NFL and concussions, two questions have come to dominate the story: What did the league know about football’s risks to the brain, and when did it know it? With each high-profile suicide or scientific breakthrough, these questions have only grown more important. Many journalists have examined the crisis, seeking to determine what it may mean for the future of football. Here are some highlights:

Life After Football

“On a postcard-perfect Southern California morning, George Visger is pissing blood. This comes as a relief. For me, mostly. But also for him. Things could be worse. He could be having a seizure. Or slipping into a coma. Which means I could be jamming a one-inch butterfly needle into a thumbnail-sized hole in the side of his skull, trying to siphon off excess spinal fluid while avoiding what Visger calls ‘the white stuff.’

“The white stuff being brain tissue.”

[Fred McNeil’s] “memory started failing as early as the mid-’90s. He never told Tia; he didn’t understand it himself. Even when he got voted out of Zimmerman Reed, and then the next firing, and the next. Everything was just taking so long. Something that should take an hour was taking him four. Reading a brief. The simplest tasks. He blamed his deteriorating eyesight. He went to an eye doctor—the only medical help he ever sought. He got glasses, then stronger ones, and stronger ones still. He kept forgetting things. He was supposed to pick up Freddie at school. Forgot. So many thoughts just—poof! He learned to compensate. He learned to say ‘Nice to see you’ instead of ‘Nice to meet you.’ The latter was simply too risky. Apparently some of those people he had been saying that to were friends. But he had no memory of them. Blank. So it was ‘Nice to see you,’ always, just in case.”

“He was a beaten-down man. His confidence was gone. He seemed worn-out. It was hard for him to articulate coherent thoughts. There was a degradation of the dude that I remember playing with. I played with Muhammad Ali, and I had lunch with a guy that showed up with the machismo of Urkel. He looked like a crackhead walking in off the street. He said, ‘I need help. I don’t know what to do. I’m an addict of a lot of things. Tell me what to do, man.'”

“Mr. [John] Mackey is a sturdy 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds underneath his trademark black cowboy hat. He’s convivial with fans who remember him, but soon into any interaction quickly demonstrates his mental decline. During lunch on Friday, he used a spoon to drink his coffee, thinking it was soup, and uttered non sequiturs to almost any question, including several repetitions of ‘I want a cookie’ and ‘I got in the end zone.’”

Football and the Brain

“She has seen brains that have defied aging and those that have aged prematurely; brains that have sustained damage from a concussive rocket blast 150 feet away and brains damaged from one too many head butts at the line of scrimmage. She has seen so many brains she has lost count. … She may know if the donor on her table played football or hockey or launched one too many headers on goal. Scientific bias precludes any further familiarity. Googling will have to come later. ‘I have to know the name,’ she says. ‘A number of times it’s come up they want me to just use numbers, and I can’t do that. It’s got to have a name because it is a person, a life.'”

“‘There’s going to be some controversy about you going back to play.’ Elliot Pellman looks Wayne Chrebet in the eye in the fourth quarter of a tight game, Jets vs. Giants on Nov. 2, 2003, at the Meadowlands. A knee to the back of the head knocked Chrebet stone-cold unconscious a quarter earlier, and now the Jets’ team doctor is putting the wideout through a series of mental tests. Pellman knows Chrebet has suffered a concussion, but the player is performing adequately on standard memory exercises. ‘This is very important for you,’ the portly physician tells the local hero, as was later reported in the New York Daily News. ‘This is very important for your career.’ Then he asks, ‘Are you okay?’ When Chrebet replies, ‘I’m fine,’ Pellman sends him back in.”

“[Dr. Bennett] Omalu stared at Mike Webster’s brain. He kept thinking, How did this big athletic man end up so crazy in the head? He was thinking about football and brain trauma. The leap in logic was hardly extreme. He was thinking, Dementia pugilistica? ‘Punch-drunk syndrome,’ they called it in boxers. The clinical picture was somewhat like Mike Webster’s: severe dementia—delusion, paranoia, explosive behavior, loss of memory—caused by repeated blows to the head. Omalu figured if chronic bashing of the head could destroy a boxer’s brain, couldn’t it also destroy a football player’s brain? Could that be what made Mike Webster crazy?”

Protecting Players

“It’s a time of high emotion in the NFL. Countless players in the last week, mostly defenders, said they felt they’re being unfairly singled out for discipline. They say that because things happen so quickly on the field, it is extremely difficult for them to avoid inflicting crushing helmet-to-helmet hits. Even when a tackler aims at a ballcarrier’s chest, the offensive player often ducks to miss the contact, and the result is helmet-to-helmet. What’s more, defensive players argue that they are invariably blamed for such hits even when it is the receiver who turns to run aggressively upfield, lowers his head and initiates the contact.

“… Even the Players Association was angry about what seemed to be an attempt to make the game safer. ‘The skirts need to be taken off in the NFL offices,’ said union president Kevin Mawae on ESPN Radio.”

“For equipment manufacturers, the demand for protective headgear has never been greater. Leading companies, as well as an army of upstarts, have responded by developing a number of new helmet designs, each claiming to offer unprecedented safety. The trouble is that behind them all lie reams of conflicting research, much of it paid for, either directly or indirectly, by the helmet manufacturers or the league.”

“There is no doubt the league is concerned. In 2011, the NFL’s Head Neck and Spine Committee rolled out a league-wide concussion assessment protocol, and the league’s $30 million donation to the NIH for the study of mild traumatic brain injury is the largest in NFL history.

Yet for all the league’s efforts, Johnson’s story is hardly unique. During the tenth week of this season, three star quarterbacks – Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers, Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles – were concussed, and each remained on the field for several plays before being benched. Smith managed to throw a 14-yard touchdown pass despite having blurred vision after a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit.”

The Future of Football

“Goodell likes to say that for the NFL and football to evolve and continue to thrive, everyone must contribute: players, coaches, officials, executives and the commissioner. But, he often reminds people, he is the commissioner, and it’s his job to safeguard the game’s integrity — ‘protect the shield,’ as he puts it. And under his watch, the league has become significantly more powerful, with mushrooming revenue and global influence.”

“[Kyle] Turley says he was once in the training room after a game with a young linebacker who had suffered a vicious hit on a kickoff return. ‘We were in the cold tub, which is, like, forty-five degrees, and he starts passing out. In the cold tub. I don’t know anyone who has ever passed out in the cold tub. That’s supposed to wake you up. And I’m, like, slapping his face. “Richie! Wake up!” He said, “What, what? I’m cool.” I said, “You’ve got a concussion. You have to go to the hospital.” He said, “You know, man, I’m fine.”‘ He wasn’t fine, though. That moment in the cold tub represented a betrayal of trust. He had taken the hit on behalf of his team. He was then left to pass out in the cold tub, and to deal — ten and twenty years down the road — with the consequences. No amount of money or assurances about risk freely assumed can change the fact that, in this moment, an essential bond had been broken. What football must confront, in the end, is not just the problem of injuries or scientific findings. It is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game.”

“Beyond the present litigation, the NFL faces a more ominous longer-term question. New research suggests the peril players face may not be limited to car wreck hits. It may extend to the relentless, day-in-and-day-out collisions that are the essence of the game. If science one day determines that merely playing serious tackle football substantially increases the danger of debilitating brain disease — as smoking cigarettes makes lung cancer much more likely — it’s conceivable that the NFL could go the way of professional boxing.”

“It is one of the strangest dynamics in sports: the N.F.L., a league for highly compensated adults, effectively sets the policies for children playing for free. The governing bodies for Pop Warner, high school and college football changed most of their rules regarding concussions only after the N.F.L. did so. In some ways, youth football still has to catch up with the professional game. The N.F.L. has eliminated much of the sport’s contact during practices, yet high schools continue unperturbed.”

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



More Stories

Where Harvey Weinstein’s Cases, Trials & Convictions Stand Now
The former movie mogul has been tried, convicted and sentenced to nearly four decades in prison on multiple charges in two jurisdictions and faces additional civil lawsuits.
March 21, 2023
Citing War Crimes in Ukraine, International Criminal Court Issues Arrest Warrant for Putin
The court alleges there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the Russian president bears “individual criminal responsibility” for the deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
March 17, 2023
The U.S.-led Invasion of Iraq, 20 Years Later
Explore 22 FRONTLINE documentaries that chronicle the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion of Iraq, its long and bloody aftermath and the enduring impact on ordinary Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. 
March 17, 2023
Former FDIC Chair on Bank Collapses, the Federal Reserve and "Potential Fragility" in the Financial System
Sheila Bair, a former top banking regulator, spoke to FRONTLINE just days after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank about the Federal Reserve, easy money and potential fragility in the financial system.
March 16, 2023