Frontline's "League of Denial" is the Perfect Tool to Teach Freshman Comp

Last night I watched Frontline’s investigation into the NFL’s concussion crisis, “League of Denial” and afterwards realized that showing this film at the beginning of the semester would be an incredible way to teach freshman composition. In addition to being a brilliant and relevant piece of journalism, one so damning it might mark the beginning of the NFL’s demise, it is an excellent demonstration of academic discourse, public discourse, and how the two intersect and relate to one another.


At the University of South Florida where I teach, Comp 1 is essentially an introduction to academic discourse and Comp 2 is an introduction to public discourse, even if the curriculum does not make this explicit. Students have a difficult time grasping the distinction between these modes of discourse and I have been on the hunt for topics that illustrate the difference. Too often however, I’ve found that topics with lively debates in both arenas, like global warming or debt-to-GDP ratio, are too technical or political to serve as teaching tools. Politically aware students come to class with partisan baggage that prevents them from thinking critically about the topics (there are a surprising number of freshman climate deniers). Many others, who we have to remember are still very young, have yet to develop a political consciousness and so don’t see how debt ratios and climate change are relevant to their lives. The topics don’t engage them.


But football? Well hot damn.


Many of my students have been USF football players, high school football players, or simply football fans and they have all wanted to write about football-related topics. Business majors write about the business of the NFL and its unique profit sharing system. Engineering majors write about helmet design. Pre-med students write about concussions. Students from a variety of majors write about leadership and sports. The athletes themselves have usually written about paying college athletes or preventing concussions in young players.


Rather than fight this, I say meet the students where they are. This is why Frontline’s “League of Denial” would make such a great teaching tool. The first half of the film is about the scientific and medical debate surrounding head trauma that took place primarily within academic journals. Afterwards, the film transitions into the public debate about player safety, NFL culpability, and how to solve the crisis. In other words, half the film is about academic discourse and the other half about public discourse.


The film begins with the story of the brain specialist who, by chance, conducted the first autopsy of a former NFL player that examined the player’s brain. This doctor then published his findings in an academic journal. The NFL’s response was to assemble a team of doctors who were not brain specialists to write scientific papers and publish them in an academic journal. The editor of this journal however, for reasons explained in the film, published the articles over the objections of the scientists who conducted the peer review, who had determined the studies were flawed. Despite this effort from the NFL, the process of academic debate and conversation worked as it should and eventually dispelled the illegitimate studies.


As a teacher, I could show students how to log into the USF library’s databases, search for the doctors mentioned in the film, and find their articles. Students could read the articles for themselves and see how the academic conversation unfolded.


Next, as the film transitions into the public debate, which was a national conversation taking place primarily in the press between players, their families, the NFL, reporters, columnists, doctors, and even Congress, I could show students how to search for those newspaper articles and op-eds. Because of the film, students would already know the end point of the debate and could work backwards, retracing the path through the public debate and see how it unfolded article by article, op-ed by op-ed.


With a topic that engages students, we could talk about the dispassion of science versus the stakeholders in public debate, the difference between questions of “what is?” and “what should be?” and I think make clear and concrete the abstractions of academic versus public discourse.


If anyone tries this in their classroom, please let me known how it goes.

--  Oct 10th 2013