Friday, October 11, 2013

Denial of League of Denial

The pushback has already begun.

Predictable, really - its just too easy a target. Sure, Frontline's documentary on the NFL, League of Denial, was a damning piece of seamless investigative journalism. How seamless? Even Deadspin, whose stock in trade is to try to take anyone else's investigative journalism to pieces to clear the decks for their own, couldn't manage a swipe. (Correction: they've added one.) Sure, it made things very, very clear that the NFL was well aware of the dangers of traumatic head injury to its players and yet did everything in its power to prevent players from learning about the issue. And sure, it was very clear about what those consequences were. Just ask the family of Mike Webster.


It aired on PBS. On the egghead channel. The channel that doesn't broadcast football but did broadcast Mr. Rogers. Wimp TV. Nerd TV. Elitist snob TV.

Which means it's easy to take the next step and dismiss the documentary by saying it's a bunch of nerds trying to take away our football. An expose of corporate malfeasance instead becomes another front in the culture wars.

Which is a shame, because viewing the film in that light completely misses its point. Made by people who love football, it suggests that the real crime wasn't the traumatic injury, but rather the league's underhanded tactics in refusing to let players know the risks, so they could make informed choices as to whether or not they were still willing to play.

But that's a subtle distinction that's not going to play on talk radio or in comments sections. It's easier to draw the broad strokes, to call up the guests who can reliably rant and rave about the people who never played the game trying to sissify it. 

(Seriously. The go-to guest after the last round of "please don't hammer our expensive quarterbacks in the face with your armor-plated helmets" rules changes was Ray Lewis, who could reliably provide a quote as to how this was wringing all the manliness out of football. The irony of having a guy once investigated for murder on to talk about how football wasn't violent enough any more seems to have escaped everyone.)

And in the meantime, the NFL will continue to package vicarious macho, telling couch potatoes that watching the game will turn them into titanic Conans in Jets jerseys who possess harems, superpowers, and the ability to escape the horror of spending time with one's spouse. Yes, I know those commercials are jokes. But the underlying message is not exactly subtle - watching lots of football is manly, doing anything else is not. And now they're saying the dweebs from PBS who never put a hand on the ground - never mind that you probably didn't either - want to take that away from you.

So the facts will get swallowed up by the messaging, by the disparaging Dan Patricks of the world and the ranty commenters who don't want anything to interfere with their fantasy leagues and seven-layer dip parties. 

In the end, League of Denial won't be the thing that forces change. The pushback will be too strong, the tropes are too easy, and the resistance is too entrenched. And that's part of the tragedy of this stuff as well, that the simple message of "they should have let the players know" is what will get lost, and that it's going to take many more of these - more beloved stars succumbing to dementia, more more wrecked lives being paraded before the unwilling public, more guys yammering "but they got paid lots of money!" as if that semi-truth makes a difference, before things change.
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