I recently watched League of Denial, an important documentary on head trauma and the NFL. It looks at the relationship between football, concussions, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In not only telling the stories of Mike Webster and Junior Seau, and the evolution of the medical understanding of concussions, League of Denial documents the failures of the NFL to protect its players from the horrifying consequences of America’s violent pastime.
I was little disappointed with this “controversial” documentary. I didn’t find anything about controversial unless you are a flat-earth/global warming hoax/concussions are no biggie kinda person. Maybe that was who the film made for; for me, I wanted more nuance, more complexity, and less “got ya” NFL thematic focus
In an effort to trace the history of evolving understanding of the long-term effects of concussions the documentary also took the focus away from the players themselves. In focusing on the failures of the NFL to adequately intervene, and even inform players of risks, it shifted the conversation away from the players. Having watched a number of reports, I found Real Sports exposes to be far more powerful because they showed the consequences; it spotlighted the pain, the physical and mental toll on former players and their families. The sight of childhood heroes, men often celebrated as warriors and gladiators, as fragile and wounded people, haunts me to this day. The sight of fathers and sons, brothers and friends, suffering with depression, dementia, ALS and countless other neurological issues shapes my understanding of the concussions here – these stories and images, not the NFL doctor’s who denied or the NFL’s changing protocol, is what changed my relationship to football. I wish League of Denial had done more to document and give voice to those who suffer because of the culture of football. Along these lines, I was surprised that the film did not address the growing research that links head trauma to ALS and tell the stories of those former players who are enduring this disease.
While not given much attention, the film does take on sexism (albeit briefly) within the medical community/the NFL as it relates to the dismissal of Dr. Ann Mckee’s important research, it failed to address the racism directed at Dr. Bennet Omalu. It was not only a MISSED moment to comment on how racism and sexism (“white male racial framing”) contributes to systemic silence and erasure, but also how the NFL, like corporate America as a whole, remains a system mired by the “old boys network” and the hegemony of white male power.
While the documentary is on the specific situation within the NFL, it missed an opportunity to highlight the crisis associated with the long-term consequences of head trauma on countless playing fields. The crisis documented within the film is one that is potentially talking place within the collegiate ranks, from football to women’s soccer. In fact, research shows that female athletes suffer concussions at a higher rate than their male counterparts. The film missed an opportunity to reflect on a culture and society of silence.
One of the biggest shortcomings from the film is its lack of attention to masculinity. The culture of denial and acceptance is wrapped up in the scripts of masculinity, which condone and celebrate violence. The GOP and its friend’s obsession with the “war on football” and its claims about the America getting soft is part of a culture that perpetuates and sanctions at a game that is leading many down a lifetime of pain, despair, and life-altering (destroying) injuries. Whether reflecting on the violence of football or the “put some dirt” on it mentality that surrounds football, and the larger cultural-political context, it is impossible to talk about concussions without talking about masculinity. I have written about this before:
To be a real man is not only to play football, but also to do so without regard for safety; to be a real man is to stay out on the field, to disregard pain and long-term harm as any warrior would do. To be a real man is to ring an opponent’s bell, to knock him out, leaving you and him in a state of delirium. The demands to “suck it up” or “play like a man” within a league that is 68% African American deserves pause and critique, given the ways that race and masculinity operate within American culture. “Using white masculinity as a yardstick for a normal masculinity grounded in ideas about strength as dominance, African American men become defined as subordinates, deviant, and allegedly weak, and black men’s reported weakness as men is compared to the seeming strength of white men,” writes Patricia Hill Collins in Progressive Black Masculinities (edited by Athena Mutua). “Definitions of black masculinity in the United States reflect a narrow cluster of controlling images situated within a broader framework that grants varying value to racially distinctive forms of masculinity.”
The demands to “tough it out” or claims about choice cannot be understood outside these “controlling images” and history, one that includes nostalgia for an era of football defined by toughness, ruggedness, uber masculinity, and whiteness.
A culture that celebrates vicious hits, that develops highlights packages based around the most violent and physically dangerous contact, makes this clear. Is this real choice? Is it a choice when these values are taught to young boys, who learn early how to play football? A football culture that questions a player’s commitment and manhood when he puts his health in front of anything else sends this message each and every day. Is this really choice? In a culture where “complaining about pain is tantamount to weakness” and “playing hurt is as common as a forward pass,” it is no wonder that guys “choose” to play hurt, to conceal injuries, to “risk” their long term health for a game. Sure, money is an issue and there are potential consequences of putting body and mind ahead of tackles, touchdowns and victories, all of which would certainly lead to a quick exit from the league. Yet, any refusal to subscribe to the prerequisites of football players puts more in danger than a paycheck, leading to questions about toughness, strength, and masculinity – are you a real man?
To this day, I still can recall the praise and celebration for not only every bone-crushing hit I had during my short high school football career, but every time my own bell was rung I heard nothing but praise and adoration. I can also recall a concussion I got playing baseball, which led me to actually sit out one game. I remember sitting out with a sense of pride and joy since a concussion was a measure of my commitment to athletic excellence and a battle scar that proved that indeed I was a real man. I was willing to sacrifice, play through pain (in the game where I was injured), and otherwise put my body on the line. Yes, I made a choice, one that was constrained and influenced by a culture that expected me to “play sports like a man”–a lesson that is contributing to the death sentences of too many of its students.
To ignore the harmful manifestations of masculinity is to ignore the root issues in play. It would be like talking about health problems related to breathing without actually looking at the toxins in the air.
Likewise, the film fails to deal with race and racism as it relates to the lack of public outcry over concussions. While clearly the league has been complicit through its public denial, the lack pressure from fans is also at play. Race matters here. According to Jason Silverstein, the racial empathy gap plays out in a spectrum of places; hard not to think about its relevance to the NFL.
The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt. A recent study shows that people, including medical personnel, assume black people feel less pain than white people. The researchers asked participants to rate how much pain they would feel in 18 common scenarios. The participants rated experiences such as stubbing a toe or getting shampoo in their eyes on a four-point scale (where 1 is “not painful” and 4 is “extremely painful”). Then they rated how another person (a randomly assigned photo of an experimental “target”) would feel in the same situations. Sometimes the target was white, sometimes black. In each experiment, the researchers found that white participants, black participants, and nurses and nursing students assumed that blacks felt less pain than whites.
The focus on the NFL at the expense of a discussion of the larger issues of race, gender, and sports culture limits the potential intervention here. The film’s celebration of changes within the NFL, while ignoring the lack of transformation in the root issues at play, further illustrates its unfulfilled potential. Thankfully it has started a conversation for the NFL isn’t merely a league of denial but one defined by pain, sorrow, and lives cut short. It’s bigger than the NFL.