using Frontline's "League of Denial" to introduce academic & public discourse

The first hour covers the academic debate; the second hour covers the public debate

A conversation starter in comp classes themed around discourse genres

Having students watch Frontline’s investigation into the NFL’s concussion crisis, “League of Denial,” at the beginning of the semester is good way to start freshman composition if your class focuses of genres of discourse. 


The two hour piece is a demonstration of academic discourse, public discourse, and how the two intersect and relate to one another. The first half of the film is about the scientific and medical debate surrounding head trauma that took place primarily within academic journals. Afterward, the film transitions into the public debate about player safety, NFL culpability, and how to solve the crisis.


In other words, during the first hours scientists debate "what is" and during the second hour the public debates "what should be." The first hour is about facts, the second hour about values.


Other topics don't work as well

My students had a difficult time grasping the distinction between academic and public discourse so I went on the hunt for topics that illustrated the difference. Too often however, I found that topics with lively debates in both arenas, like global warming or debt-to-GDP ratio, are too technical or partisan to serve as teaching tools.


Politically aware students come to class with partisan baggage that prevents them from thinking critically about some topics (I had a surprising number of freshman climate change 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 or climate change are relevant to their lives. The topics don’t engage them. But football? Well hot damn.


A topic that holds their attention

I've had many college football players, former high school football players, and football fans as students. 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” makes a great teaching tool.


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.


Dive into the library databases

Armed with an engaging topic, you could show students how to log into your 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.


The public debate was a national conversation taking place primarily in the press between players, their families, the NFL, reporters, columnists, doctors, and even Congress. You could show students how to search for those newspaper articles and op-eds in a database like LexisNexis. 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.



If you assign academic papers as well as persuasive essays or calls-to-action, you know students get their genres crossed. They inject value judgements into academic essays and bloat persuasive essays with data while ignoring the values that give that data meaning. Beginning the semester with "League of Denial" and a thorough review of the two discourses it illustrates will help guide students away from those mistakes.