Rich Copley: 'League of Denial' should make the NFL squirm

Former Pittsburgh lineman Mike Webster's brain injury and death are explored in Frontline: League of Denial.
Former Pittsburgh lineman Mike Webster's brain injury and death are explored in Frontline: League of Denial. Getty Images

If it's Sunday afternoon in the fall and I am around the TV, chances are I am going to turn on football.

Since I was a kid, the sights and sounds of the three-hour vigils — which can stretch to six hours in front of the TV have been synonymous with fall, and even the holidays. Football might be the only thing celebrated for people falling asleep in front of it as they digest too much Thanksgiving dinner.

I have a great memory of last Thanksgiving, watching with my nephews as my Washington Redskins hung a loss on the malevolent force of evil that is the Dallas Cowboys — yes, I can get a little bit passionate about football.

But football is becoming an increasingly guilty pleasure.

From the cavalier attitude by the NFL and others toward short-term and long-term injuries to players' corrupt practices from the pros to high school, to even the offensive name of my favorite home-region team, I all but have to hold my nose to enjoy a game.

Many of football's systemic problems have been documented recently in an almost relentless stream: articles, books and now a new PBS Frontline program that airs Tuesday night: League of Denial, which looks at the pervasive problem of brain injuries among NFL players who have suffered multiple concussions. The show made headlines in August, when ESPN, which had partnered with Frontline through its esteemed Outside the Lines program, pulled out of the project, citing a misunderstanding about editorial control. But many people speculated that the network bowed to pressure from the NFL, which doesn't like the program and with which ESPN has a multibillion-dollar contract to broadcast games.

Football gets another black eye.

As much as I love the game, I don't love the idea that I and millions of others are being entertained at the expense of someone else's long-term health, even if that person is a willing participant. According to promotions for League of Denial, which I have not seen, it delves deeply into the story of Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers' legendary center during the team's 1970s and '80s glory days, whose death and diagnosis of a neurodegenerative disease was a catalyst for research that has discovered that many other former players suffer from serious brain injuries suffered on the gridiron.

There has been some progress in medical and equipment research and development, but the bulk of the official response to revelations about brain injuries has been payments, settlements and silence.

That's just one part of the story.

One of the most intriguing aspects of a book by Gregg Easterbrook, The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, is a section detailing how the enormously profitable NFL tries to pass itself off as a not-for-profit entity, with most of its teams playing in largely taxpayer-subsidized stadiums and most of the profits going to the extremely wealthy owners.

"The National Football League is strictly a profit-making entertainment endeavor, yet is subsidized up one side and down the other," Easterbrook writes. "Imagine if Hollywood's studios, sets and costumes were funded by taxpayers, then movie companies kept all the profit and dodged taxes to boot. That's the situation with professional football."

Remember, it was seen as somewhat revolutionary when Alan Stein built the Lexington Legends' ballpark with private money, in part because we just seem to assume that stadiums and their ilk are public property.

Another high-profile recent football tome is The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. I have not read it, but I've heard it discussed extensively by the authors in a number of long-form interviews.

Benedict and Keteyian, both esteemed sports journalists, discuss every dark thing you have heard about college football, including recruitment scandals, under-the-table payments and the fact that college football is a billion-dollar enterprise that doesn't pay its primary and most vulnerable workers.

It all almost makes the controversy over the Washington Redskins' name seem quaint. But there is no way around the fact that redskin is a slur and offensive to millions of Americans, and it's yet another negative on football. Love the team, but please, change the name.

The common denominator for all these journalists is a love of the game. Football is an engrossing spectacle for millions. But to maintain that status and curb the growth of a conflicted fan base, its overlords need to start facing some of the real issues in the sport and stop living in denial.


'Frontline: League of Denial'

9 p.m. Tue. on KET