I just watched the highly anticipated Frontline documentary League of Denial. It was billed as a no holds barred expose on the NFL’s insistent denial of the connection between playing football and traumatic head injuries, and it was. What bothered me way more than the concussions, however, was the unexplored theme of racism that was prevalent throughout the piece.
The discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE in NFL players can be accredited to one man— Nigerian born Dr. Bennet Omalu. He made the startling discovery, which eventually lead to massive rule changes in professional football and a $765 million settlement by the NFL when he performed an autopsy on Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. Once he published his findings the billion-dollar behemoth that is the National Football League promptly railroaded him. They had closed-door meetings based on the fallout from his research which they intentionally failed to invite him to. They discredited him personally and professionally. The NFL made things so difficult for him that he had to move across the country to Lodi, CA.
Apparently they had no choice but to respect Dr. Omalu’s groundbreaking research, they just needed it to come out of a white person’s mouth—enter Dr. Ann McKee. Based on the evidence depicted in the two-hour documentary it was very clear, to me at least, that Dr. McKee completely hijacked Dr. Omalu’s research and what made it even worse is NFL representatives actually sat down and spoke with her like she was the first person to present that data. Dr. McKee then complained about being treated in a sexist manner when she presented “her” discoveries on CTE. I found it to be quite bizarre that the documentary devoted about five minutes to her claims of sexism but never spoke to the fact that she was standing on the back of a black man the whole time.
It was as if all fingers needed to point to the NFL in order for the viewers to receive the message, therefore analyzing institutionalized racism in the context of medical research would have been too much to process. Overall I was underwhelmed by League of Denial. It was extremely oversimplified. I really dislike it when so-called documentaries attempt to make the world resemble a comic book; good versus evil, light versus darkness, the forces of heaven versus the forces of hell, the NFL versus retired players. When will we realize that life is more complicated than an old episode of Full House? There are multiple issues functioning simultaneously that prevent us from reaching our full potential and we need to acknowledge them all.
I want to give a special shout out to Dr. Bennet Omalu for his bold and courageous efforts to save lives and improve the human condition. I do acknowledge you sir, even if your colleagues don’t.