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Leigh Steinberg

The inspiration for the movie character “Jerry Maguire,” Leigh Steinberg is a former sports agent who once represented NFL stars such as Troy Aikman and Steve Young. In the 1990s, he organized conferences to educate his clients about the risks of concussions. He spoke to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 29, 2013.

The inspiration for the movie character “Jerry Maguire,” Leigh Steinberg is a former sports agent who once represented NFL stars such as Troy Aikman and Steve Young. In the 1990s, he organized conferences to educate his clients about the risks of concussions. He spoke to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on March 29, 2013.

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    Let's start by talking a little bit about how the game, the industry, America's game, grew during the time that you were involved -- how big it became, how much money was involved, how it really did become America's game.

    I began my career in 1975. In 1976 each team as a share of the national television contract received $2 million, per team per season. 1989 that figure was $17 million, per team per season. When they opened up competitive bidding to Fox and TNT and it became a brave new world of loss-leader economics, that figure went to $45 million. Currently each team makes $170 million.

    In 1976 two teams came into the National Football League, and they were Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, and they had a purchase price of $16.5 million. In 1995 the league expanded again to Carolina and Jacksonville. They had a purchase price of $130 million. Five years later Houston comes into the NFL, and their purchase price is $650 million. And last summer there was a sale of the Cleveland Browns, which of course will make you forget the championship Packers, that was for over a billion dollars.

    So we've seen exponential rises in the revenue that comes from television, which has then changed the whole value of franchises. And the ancillary revenue sources that come from stadia with huge boxes, naming rights, sponsorships, signage, scoreboards and the use of social media, the Internet, Fantasy Football, DirecTV, the NFL Network, we are swimming in a bonanza of revenue. ... 

  2. Ψ Share"Athletes were in a state of denial"

    You used to say the danger of the game is not understood by the public, that you used to be so scared up in the stands watching your clients that you had a Physician's Desk Reference on your desk. Explain how you saw that, how you started fearing what that really meant to the human beings that are playing this game.

    It became clear to me that the athletes were in a state of denial, that they had been taught since Pop Warner to ignore pain, to be stoic; to be part of a team meant to forget about long-term health, that if you and I think that long-term health is the key, and way after that the ability to play an athletic career, and far below that in a given season, below that a given game, below that a given play -- to the athlete, it's the play. That's everything. They tilt the whole value system on its head, and long-term health becomes a abstraction, and playing right now becomes everything.

    I watched athletes I represented play with collapsed lungs in a game, with a broken leg. 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. They were oblivious to the reality of their physical health.

    And because of that, I also realized that some of the medical treatment they were getting was not really sufficient to do the job. I had a player who was diagnosed with problems in his groin area. It turned out he had a hip that had to be replaced. Another player had 12 operations on his foot, had his foot amputated. ...

    It became clear to me I needed to educate myself on aspects of the game, and that law school hadn't prepared me. I needed to have gone to med school and that we needed to have the ability to have second opinions and that I had to be zealous to safeguard athletic health. The parents are good allies, the wives are good allies, but we need the whole system to be sensitive to the long-term consequences.

  3. Ψ ShareHow Monday Night Football changed everything

    One other thing about the growth of football: Monday Night Football, how did that change everything?

    What happened is that when football leaped from Sunday afternoons to prime time, it transcended the narrow genre of hardcore football fans to become a national pastime. The effect of that was to bring that sport into millions of households that had never previously watched a game together. It brought it into female consciousness in ways that hadn't happened before. It became an entertainment show as well as a sports event. And it became a happening.

    That increased, and it started to become clear that sports could be a loss leader, that even the Sunday games could be a platform for promos from Monday through Friday programming. And Rupert Murdoch, who wanted to build Fox, could pay whatever amount of money the rights fees cost for what CBS used to own, which was the NFC, because if he could get enough people watching on Sunday to now watch this Monday through Friday, he would increase the bottom-line value of his network by leaps and bounds.

    So what happened is, you started to have all sorts of bidders come into the sport. What did that mean? It meant much more football on television, many more highlight shows, many more commentary shows. And the amount of football just burst through the seams. The effect of that was to have the NFL replace baseball as America's sport.

    And last football season we saw weeks in which the top five Nielsen-rated shows out of 90 were all nighttime NFL football. No entertainment has dominated American viewing patterns this way. These were regular season weeks, the top five shows. Number three was Football in America. A pregame show left Dancing with the Stars and NCIS and Two and a Half Men, and any other form of televised entertainment in America, in its wake.

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    Others on this topic:
    A League In Denial?
    Professional football and the glorification of violence

    The use of violence, the glorification of violence, what's the effect of that? ...

    ... What's a more powerful image in football than a violent hit? And it began to be a subject that was glorified. There were actual shows showing the hardest hits. NFL Films marketed different DVDs which were The Hardest Hits. The actual logo of Monday Night Football is two helmets hitting together. And it became part of the popular jargon -- you know, "He knocked him silly"; "He knocked him to the moon"; "He rung his bell."

    No one ever concentrated on who was getting hit and what the consequences of the hit were. And remember, if this hit is celebrated, then when that athlete goes back to the locker room his teammates celebrate with him, he's congratulated. He goes to film study, he's congratulated. Every time he knocks someone silly, he receives adulation, so we began to glorify that hit. ...

    So I'm watching players get hit in the '80s and in the '90s, and intuitively it strikes me that something negative must be happening when someone's head is getting hit. But no one in the NFL says there's any problem. As a matter of fact, the league physician in 1994 issues an advisory that there is no evidence that one concussion leads to another, that one concussion in a short period of time combined with another leads to anything that's negative, and that a whole series of concussions leads to long-term consequences.

    So I began to think I can't continue to represent athletes -- and we went to doctors over and over and over again with athletes who had suffered these concussions and asked: "You know, how many are too many? When does this start doing long-term damage? When does someone think about retiring?" They had no answers. ...

  5. Ψ ShareTroy Aikman's concussion in the '95 NFC championship

    ... I'm going to start with the famous Troy Aikman story. 1995, the NFC championship game, he gets kneed in the head. ... Take us to that game. What were you watching? What were your worries? ...

    So Dallas vs. San Francisco was a game where I had large numbers of clients on both sides, and also both quarterbacks, both number 8s. And I happened to be sitting for that game next to former President Bush in [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones' box.

    So Dallas wins, and they were exultant. So my first job was going to the losing locker room to console Steve Young and Brent Jones and Tim McDonald and all those clients. Then I went to visit Troy, who was at Baylor Med Center in downtown Dallas. Now, Dallas was awash in celebration, as only Dallas can be -- horns honking, fireworks. The air was filled with celebration and shouting, and Troy was sitting in a darkened hospital room all alone.

    As I went in his face brightened, and he looked at me, and he said, "Leigh, where am I?" I said, "Well, you're in the hospital." He said, "Well, why am I here?" I said, "Because you suffered a concussion today." He said, "Well, who did we play?" I said, "The 49ers." And he said, "Did we win?" "Yes, you won." "Did I play well?" "Yes, you played well." "So what's that mean?" "It means you're going to the Super Bowl, and you really only have a week here to prepare." "That's great. That's great." His face brightened.

    So we celebrated for a moment. Then maybe three or four minutes passed, and he looked back at me, and his face was troubled again, and he said, "Leigh, why am I here?" For a minute I thought he was joking, and I said, "You had a concussion." And he said, "Did I play today?" "Yes." "Who'd we play?" And I went through the same sequence of answers again. And his face brightened, and we celebrated again.

    Maybe 10 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. I finally wrote down on a piece of paper the 10 most commonly asked championship-night questions and answers so we could hold them in front of him and stare at them.

    But I, at that moment, became absolutely convinced that I could not any longer represent people that I cared for and loved, and had a fiduciary responsibility, without doing everything in my power to discover the causation and work on the ways of prevention and cure for this problem.

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    Let's talk a little bit about Steve Young, because we talked to him the other day. ... You sit down at one point in '97, maybe before that, where you sat down with Young and talked about concussions, the dinner in San Francisco after a Sunday game, and you ask how many concussions he had had. Tell me that story.

    I recall asking Steve how many concussions he'd had, and his response was, "You mean official ones?" I said, "What's an official concussion?" He said, "Well, an official one is when you're knocked out and carted off the field. But," he said, "I get dinged all the time and just continue to play." He said, "We might dumb down the playbook a little bit, but," he said, "I couldn't count those."

    A number of those, in other words, was impossible. So he was getting his bell rung, as the saying goes, constantly. What were you thinking when he said that?

    It started me thinking about the issue of subconcussive hits, because there had to be damage occurring every time the head was hit. And if the definition of a concussion is not being knocked out but a blow to the head or body occasioning a change in brain function, then it meant that there was damage occurring every single time that he got dazed. And that meant that there was potentially a cumulative effect, an aggregate of all those undiagnosed hits that could be consequential. And it started me thinking about the fact that 99 percent of the players in a game were suffering subconcussive hits in every game. And an offensive lineman -- and [defensive] linemen were certainly suffering them on every play, so that all of a sudden what we had was a ticking time bomb. We really had a health epidemic that was undiagnosed, because what was clear to me was we did not have older players that were overtly talking about having this symptomatology, so they weren't aware of it. One or two things was happening. Either the older players were unaware of it or in denial, or the problem was going to get much worse, or both.

  7. Ψ SharePlaying hurt and "CTE: "A ticking time bomb"

    So we'll stick with Steve for a little bit, and then we'll go to the specific situations you're talking about. So in the New Orleans game in '99, he gets hit like, 21 times. He's slaughtered. Are you there for that game, or what's your thinking about that game?

    Steve was as resilient an athlete as there was. But the more I became concerned about these hits, the more I became concerned about his long-term future. ...

    You're watching the game going, "Oh, my God."

    Had I been that anxious over 40 years watching 20 games a season and multiple games at once, I would have been a good candidate for Bellevue.

    But I started to worry especially because the quarterback hits were more notable. It wasn't that they weren't occurring at every position; they were. But football tends to be a quarterback-televised game. The play starts on the quarterback, and it focuses on the quarterback until he lets go of the ball somehow and is not the center of attention. So it's just clearer when he's getting hit.

    So the next game with the Cardinals, a week later, he's blindsided, and he's down on the ground. Explain what you were thinking, what you saw when that happened, what you were thinking.

    I thought he had a concussion. And then I remember he came out after the game, and they asked him if he had a concussion, and he said no. And I thought at that point that was a lot like asking a drunk driver if he was drunk, because if the issue was whether or not he was impaired, asking an impaired person to evaluate his own condition was hardly the point.

    It became clear to me at that point that players didn't know enough about what constituted a concussion to be able to self-diagnose. ...

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    ... So let's talk about the conferences. You hold conferences about concussions from '92 to '95. ... Just explain the importance of these, why you did it. ...

    There were two goals in holding the concussion conferences. The first was to make sure my clients heard what the state of the art was in respect to knowledge on the causation, long-term impact, potential ways to alleviate the whole specter of concussion. So I wanted to make sure they sat in a room and had the opportunity firsthand to interact with the leading neurologists, helmet manufacturers, field manufacturers, anybody in that constellation.

    ... The second was to see if we could find a standardized regimen of diagnosis and treatment so that -- could there be a way to rate these concussions, and then to mandate sit-out periods and the rest? If you had a 1.2, that meant a game out or a play out; if you had a 1.4, that meant two plays out, so that we standardize that.

    Could there be a neurologist on the sideline? Because what makes this issue different from any other issue is this: that we all know that football breaks down every joint in the human body, so it figures that at age 40, an athlete is going to have a tough time reaching over to pick up his child.

    It's another dimension not to be able to recognize that child. We're talking about consciousness, what it means to be whole, memory, what it means to be human, what separates us from this table. So this is the most critical of any athletic injury that doesn't involve death.

    So the first question was, is there a way to prevent them? So we brought in helmet manufacturers; we brought in mouth guard manufacturers. We took a look at field turf and other forms of turf, and we issued a white paper that recommended that Astroturf be pulled out. We took a look at the game itself and recommended that blocking and tackling with the head and neck be outlawed from the game, and that coaching techniques be instituted to take those methods out of the game.

    We asked that research be done in those areas, so that if you can send a man to the moon, you can obviously figure out better ways to protect players, and issued white papers that went around.

    That is what happened in the first set. And there were rules changes. It did spawn research, and it also created a good community of some of those leading neurologists and head-injury specialists, but not much changed. ...

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    So 2006, what kind of ripples do you make?

    So in 2006 we teamed with Tony Strickland and the [Sports] Concussion Institute. That time I made sure that we had The New York Times and The Washington Post and the L.A. Times and AP and CNN and ESPN, and every major news outlet in the country was there, because I knew at that point the studies were going to be in, and that we had Kevin Guskiewicz and Bob Cantu and David Hovda and Julian Bailes and the whole series of very distinguished, cutting-edge researchers and doctors from across the country who had now done studies.

    And what they were able to show is that -- finally three appeared to be the magic trigger number, not a rule but just a guideline that three or more appeared to indicate an exponentially higher rate of dementia, premature senility, ALS [Lou Gehrig's disease], Parkinson's, Alzheimer's. And new studies coming out showing greatly elevated rates of depression.

    The first discoveries of a new pattern called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which seemed to be predicted in some ways by a genotype, a genetic wheel that could be tested for, that showed a higher proclivity toward this. But one way or another, once someone ended up with CTE, it triggered a behavioral curve that led to depression, loss of job, loss of family and in some cases suicide.

    So now understanding that -- and we also had studies on the greater potential damage to high schoolers. So it became clear that the high school brain was in a much greater risk area, that it took longer to recover, and that brain was still in development. We also had studies that showed lower test scores for kids who headed the ball in AYSO [American Youth Soccer Organization].

    It became clear to me at that point that this was a ticking time bomb, that this was an undiagnosed health epidemic, because some of the damage might be deferred in terms of observable symptoms for 10 years, for 15 years. But the damage was being done, and the broadness of the group affected was unbelievable.

    When that conference ended, [quarterback] Warren Moon talked with Roger Goodell about the results. To his credit, as a new commissioner, Roger Goodell took another look at the concussion issue, and that June he convened a physicians' conference that looked at the issue. He issued a whistleblower edict that encouraged players to report other players who they thought were suffering from symptoms of concussion, steps that meant the Berlin Wall that had surrounded this whole issue showed its first cracks of falling.

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    Others on this topic:
    A League In Denial?
    Why the NFL "should have known"

    Because I mean, you had invited the NFL to all these conferences.

    Eventually [former chair of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee Dr.] Elliot Pellman came, I think to the second one.

    2008 I think.

    I think he came there. But the point is that for the entire history of football until then, the NFL denied this was an issue. And there was no way for players to know, because the lead physician was telling them that there was not a problem.

    And his reaction to you?

    I think in Sports Illustrated he called me "a fear monger" or some words to that effect, and it -- guilty.

    And your thoughts on his role?

    What did he know, and when did he know it? What did he know, and when did he know it? If it was ignorance, they should have known. They should have known because the issue is so critical. And there's a whole subtext here which is this feeling that football's somehow different, that men need to be manly; being manly equates to taking insane risk to accepting insane levels of damage, and that any challenge to that way of thinking is unmanly; that rules changes that protect a quarterback are putting a dress on the quarterback; that we're sissifying pro-football somehow; that players are not brave enough, to which I say to anyone who's ever attempted to think that way, if you haven't played the game, go suit up on any practice field and just take one hit, just one, and come back and we'll talk about it. ...

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    Others on this topic:
    The Players Vs. The NFLThe Future of Football

    There are now over 4,000 cases where players are bringing suits against the NFL and Riddell [helmet manufacturer]. What does it say to you now that we've come to this part? What's going on?

    I think it poses real financial threat or challenge to the future of football. I love football. I think it has character-building aspects that are difficult to achieve in other ways outside of war. It's got the ability to teach self-discipline, working hard now for future success, teamwork. It builds camaraderie, courage under pressure, all sorts of great values. I wasn't able to stop my kids from playing with everything I know, my two sons from playing high school football. I love it. It's paid for my lifestyle indirectly.

    But these are proximate threats -- the lawsuits and parents prohibiting their children from playing football -- to the future of the sport. The lawsuits will go back to what the NFL knew and when it knew it and what it told the players, because to accept the risk, the players had to know of the risk. But that's an awful lot of liability. It's not just what that financial award would cost if liability is found; it's the future insurance cost and the future liability cost, and what's necessary if there's real information and disclosure as to what the risks are, how much dissuading that does of people to play.

    Now, it's not like people don't understand that boxing has a long-term dangerous effect. There's still people that box because it's their way out of economic hardship, but it changes the way that a parent may look at their child's involvement. ...

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    Others on this topic:
    The Future of Football

    ... But some people will say what you're talking about is the death of football, because you're not going to be able to have neurosurgeons on the sidelines of every high school game in America. You're not going to be able to change this game to such an extent that there's not people --

    There's a difference between neurosurgeons and neurologists. I don't see why you couldn't have neurologists on the sidelines of every game. There are plenty of them. And high school football is a passion. The sport is popular enough that we can meet whatever the needs are, the medical needs of the players, if the will to do it is there. ...

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