Paul Solotaroff was one of the first journalists to document the mounting problem of sports-related concussions, one that has spurred rule changes in the NFL and million-dollar lawsuits. Writing for Men’s Journal, Solotaroff documented football stars past and present, some of whom suffered from brain injuries – and some of whom were still doling them out.
His findings lit a fire under his brother Isaac, a filmmaker who had worked on documentaries about everything from religion to rap. The younger Solotaroff sensed an opportunity to tell the intimate side of a broader business and medical story – depicting the suffering former employees of the most profitable sports league in America.
“The documentaries I make are always character driven; it’s just the way I’m built,” Solotaroff told TheWrap. “I didn’t feel like in the media-saturated market there were enough stories about the guys affected and their families, which is really what I was interested in.”
Solotaroff approached a few past collaborators to see if they would be interested, but they felt it was premature and he could not yet devote his full attention to the subject.
Undeterred, he began interviewing some of the players being treated at P.A.S.T Retired Athlete Medical Group, which provides medical care to retired athletes from many sports. That early footage spawned “Casualties of the Gridiron,” a digital series Solotaroff directed about former football players suffering from concussion-induced brain trauma.
GQ released five more episodes of the series on Monday, documenting players such as Leonard Marshall, one of the first athletes diagnosed. The series premiered last month on GQ.com, YouTube and on a few other sites.
“Casualties of the Gridiron” was born out of a meeting Solotaroff had several months ago with Conde Nast Entertainment, a division of the publishing giant devoted to making films, TV shows and digital series for its venerable magazine brands.
The division was just ramping up, asking filmmakers like Solotaroff what interested them. Having worked on a few sports documentaries since his brother’s research first sparked his interest, Solotaroff proposed a look at former football players and their efforts to heal.
“They thought it was great to have a story with a silver lining to it,” Solotaroff said. “I showed them some footage I shot, and they were really moved by it.”
The initial episodes of the series follow players like Ray Lucas, a former quarter back who suffered from innumerate concussions. Later episodes keep up with some of those players while introducing new ones.
Solotaroff met Lucas and Leonard thanks to Jennifer Smith, a television producer who works at P.A.S.T. Smith first realized the scope of the problem while running “Gridiron Greats,” a different organization for retired players affiliated with football legends Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers.
“You meet all these players who are too young to have dementia and Alzheimers and yet that’s how they are,” Smith told TheWrap. “Two years into working with Ditka’s group I started thinking about concussions.”
Shortly after they met, Smith began introducing Solotaroff to some of the players who came into P.A.S.T. Some were resistant to telling their story, but Smith said most of the players understand “that pay-it-forward concept.”
“What helps them helps the broader populace,” Smith said. “There are a lot of guys living in the shadows, and this gives them a sense of self worth.”
It was not long after Smith’s own realization that GQ published one of the first articles that put a human face on the lasting effects of traumatic brain injuries, a 2009 piece titled “Game Brain.”
Conde Nast Entertainment chief Dawn Ostroff and her team find some series within magazines like GQ and Vanity Fair, but often times the series reflect the spirit of a particular publication rather than a story lifted straight from the magazines.
Solotaroff’s idea was a perfect fit for the GQ’s nascent digital network.
“It’s a project we feel so proud of and is so close to our hearts for many reasons,” Conde Nast Entertainment chief Dawn Ostroff told TheWrap. “It’s a difficult show to sit down for and see the after effects. When we first heard about it and started to see some of the footage, we were devastated.”
All of those involved in the series believe the NFL must do more to prevent these injuries in the future, and to help those already suffering.
“The NFL has been put on notice; they need to do something,” Solotaroff said. “We’re already seeing a drop-off in youth football.”
But “Casualties of the Gridiron” is not a castigation of the league, or a “drive-by” as he put it. Instead, it documents the human toll and the medical assistance that some hope will turn the page in this endemic.
“This is really a window into the lives of guys who have been horribly damaged by playing football,” Solotaroff said. “I was interested in the idea that there is hope; there is medicine. The science of the brain is the last frontier of human biology.”