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Will "League of Denial" be the NFL's tipping point?

By Patrick Michael (@patmichael84)

On October 16, 2009, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell appeared on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption to speak about the growing controversy of brain injuries in football. Gladwell, who wrote "The Tipping Point," predicted that NFL football would be played very differently in 10 years. He also said that in the distant future, football would wither away and become a far less popular sport than it had been, much like the sport of boxing.

Malcolm Gladwell's dire prediction seemed preposterous at the time, but so would similar predictions have been about boxing 50 years ago. In the four years since Gladwell appeared on PTI, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has appeared before Congress on this issue, the NFL paid former players $765 million to settle a concussion lawsuit, and most recently, two brothers published a chilling book on NFL brain injuries.

The book, "League of Denial," looks back at the history of deadly brain injuries suffered by former NFL players. To go along with the book, authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru appeared on a PBS Frontline documentary of the same name on October 8, 2013. Originally, ESPN was co-producing the documentary, but later pulled out of the project. According to the NY Times, the NFL pressured ESPN to back out.

Without the PR of the ABC/Disney empire, "League of Denial" played to lukewarm fanfare on PBS. In the days leading up its premiere, ESPN gave it cursory publicity on Outside the Lines and Sportscenter. But any random day of Tim Tebow's last two NFL training camps received more publicity from ESPN than the "League of Denial" documentary. Will "League of Denial" be the tipping point that eventually brings down the NFL dynasty?

In retrospect, it is easy to see why Roger Goodell is so popular among NFL owners. Goodell successfully averted an NFL work stoppage in 2011. He settled the concussion lawsuit for a third of what the players were asking for with no admission of guilt by the NFL. And through it all, the NFL remains the most popular sport in America, with incredible ratings, television network deals, and merchandise sales.

If "League of Denial" added a few drops of poison to the NFL's beaker of doom, then the recent lawsuit settlement added more than enough antidote to postpone Gladwell's dire prophecy. With the NFL's astronomical television deal, the $765 million it paid to the former players was literally a drop in the bucket. More importantly, the NFL got off without an admission of guilt.

In "League of Denial," Dr. Bennet Omalu reported that an NFL doctor told him that if even 10 percent of parents believe that football is dangerous, then the NFL is done. Unfortunately, many families come from such impoverished backgrounds that I believe these parents will continue to allow their children to play football in hopes of someday landing a million-dollar NFL contract, despite the risks and remote odds of achieving this dream.

Needless to say, the NFL has criticized "League of Denial." The NFL claims that "League of Denial" only shows one side of the story and it attempts to portray the league in a bad light. I believe this claim is ridiculous because the NFL chose not to participate in the project. If the NFL wanted to present a counterpoint, then it should have agreed to be interviewed and present its own evidence.

Time will tell if "League of Denial" will convince parents not to let their children play football. In the meantime, I see no evidence of the NFL's popularity waning. It's one thing to not let your children play football. It's quite another to choose not to attend football games and find something else to watch on the weekend. But if Malcolm Gladwell is correct and football eventually becomes a fringe sport, then "League of Denial" may have played a role in its demise.

Sources

http://castroller.com/podcasts/EspnPti/1274881

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/sports/football/nfl-pressure-said-to-prompt-espn-to-quit-film-project.html

http://www.sportingnews.com/nfl/story/2013-09-04/nfl-commissioner-roger-goodell-concussion-settlement-lawsuit-revenue

I live in New Orleans and I have covered MLB, NFL, NBA, and pro wrestling since 2010. You can follow me on Twitter @patmichael84
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