Read this book and I guarantee you’ll never watch football the same way as you did before.
Mark Fainaru-Wada, who wrote about Barry Bonds’ steroids use, and Steve Fainaru, investigated the NFL longstanding cover-up and obfuscation over concussions in their sport. The result is a shocking expose of callousness and hypocrisy not only from NFL officials but from “jock sniffers” the NFL used to defend their product. The story is very similar to how the tobacco industry operated in the 1950s. The tobacco industry enlisted the help of a few scientists, several of whom were literally bought off, to create “junk science” to raise doubts that cigarette smoking was causing lung cancer. The industry did this well into the 1970s.
The NFL did almost the same thing. The league started up a committee, led by someone with zero experience or background in neurology, and reached a number of ridiculous conclusions that there was no risk of brain damage from playing NFL football — all while the league was quietly paying out thousands of dollars every year in disability payments to former players who had become brain damage from playing football.
Instead of taking the problem seriously and working to try to prevent brain damage, the NFL instead took the tack of trying to sweep the evidence under the carpet — and smearing and attacking the researchers and scientists digging up evidence that football was destroying men’s brains.
The book reads like a detective novel, as researchers try to get to the bottom of what’s causing a number of former players to behave erratically years after they retired. The book details the huge, and at times petty, fights between different researchers determined to get their hands on former players’ brains after they die so they could take credit for furthering the research into brain damage.
The book focuses at length on the heartbreaking story of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame centre who played on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl teams of the 1970s. After he retired, Webster — always a friendly, engaging guy — started acting strangely. He became a drifter, sleeping in bus stations, bunking at his son’s apartment. He became moody and had terrible tantrums. He would vanish periodically, he abandoned his family, etc. At times, he was lucid, and knew full well that something was wrong with him, other times he was lost, sometimes in a rage in which he would write long rambling letters attacking people with the Pittsburgh Steelers organisation. It was a very, long slow and painful journey into madness and despair and “League of Denial” pulls no punches detailing his harrowing descent. Finally, Webster died at the age of 50 in 2002.
The book shows how big ideas often start small. Knowing that Webster had suffered from erratic behaviour and mental illness, an assistant coroner in Pittsburgh — an immigrant from Nigeria named Bennet Omalu — did some tests on Webster’s brain and found damage similar to what was seen in boxers or people with Alzheimer’s. Omalu concluded that football caused this brain damage, the name given to it was Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Omalu became a central and controversial figure over the next decade as he blazed the trail into research of football and brain damage. He originally found the damage in Webster’s brain and his work led to a lot of the knowledge we have today about the brain damage caused by football, but his contributions were quickly overrun by forces out of his control — namely the NFL, which had a multi-billion dollar industry to protect.
The NFL around this time formed its concussion committee, and Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru explain in detail how, primarily by packing the committee full of “jock sniffers,” the NFL simply used this committee as a public relations tool to try and downplay the dangers of playing football. It was nearly 50 years after the tobacco industry established its “Council for Tobacco Research” to obfuscate and confuse the science around cigarettes, and the NFL stole heavily from the tobacco industry’s playbook. Fainaru-Wade and Fainaru make several references throughout “League of Denial” to the remarkable correlations between the NFL committee and the long-defunct and discredited tobacco industry front group. The NFL simply did not learn from the example of the tobacco industry that attempting to create fake science to cover up the real science will not work, especially in the long term. The football helmet industry also got involved, falsely promoting new helmet designs as “concussion proof.” The science behind what few studies had been done on these helmets turned out to be every bit as bad and half-baked as what the NFL concussion’s committee was putting forth.
Meanwhile, NFL players continued getting concussions and continued being put back in gamea while still suffering from the effects of their concussions — putting them at risk for even further brain injury. The billion-dollar NFL money-making machine just kept churning … as it became pretty obvious that the league’s concussion committee was all part of protecting that machine.
Several brain specialists, however, weren’t buying the outrageous and unscientific conclusions being reached by the NFL committee. This group became known as the “Dissenters.”
After Mike Webster’s death, there were a number of other high profile deaths by formers players — notably Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, both of whom committed suicide — and notably committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest, because they both knew something was wrong with their brains and they wanted their brains studied after they died.
What the Dissenters found was that in case after case, a number of deceased NFL players had varying levels of CTE. (CTE explained). Some researchers wondered if perhaps every single player in the NFL had this condition from the repeated pounding of the game.
Even amongst the Dissenters, there were a number of battles and wars as researchers in this area literally scrambled in a disturbing race to gain possession of former NFL players’ brains after they died. Suddenly, players’ brains became a hot commodity. To a degree, and “League of Denial” is fairly sympathetic to Omalu, but none of the scientists involved, Omalu included, were really completely innocent in this unseemly battle over players’ brains.
In the end, these battles proved to be a sideshow, as the real story began when former players, many of whom had been struggling for years with depression, memory loss and Alzheimer’s, began banding together to sue the NFL.
In the end, the NFL disbanded its discredited committee, very much like the tobacco industry disbanded the Council for Tobacco Studies. The NFL imposed a number of new controversial rules trying to ban late hits and helmet to helmet contact.
Several thousand former players sued the league, winning a $765 million settlement against the league. Many people exclaimed that the NFL got off ridiculously easy with this settlement. A judge recently threw that settlement out as inadequate. The NFL will likely have to pay former players considerably more than $1 billion to settle the litigation.
League of Denial is definitely an engaging and fascinating read, and after you’ve read it, you’ll never watch football in quite the same way.
I don’t have the answers myself. Some people have speculated that the concussion litigation could bring the NFL down. The NFL is an awfully huge entertainment industry, and won’t go away easily. It’s too exciting and too popular.
I don’t buy the argument that the players knew what they were in for. They chose to play football. No, they didn’t chose to suffer from dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s and clinical depression in their 40s … and remember most football players don’t play for long — 5 years or less, and most football players really didn’t make that much money in the 70s and 80s. They didn’t choose to be lied to about how much damage was being done to their brains.
They’ll never totally get rid of the concussions; the game is too violent and the players too big and fast (I suspect the rise of concussions has something to do with the rise of PEDs in sports).
What the NFL needs to do is start taking the concussions seriously. Stop putting guys in games when they are obviously hurt, start taking the science seriously, ban hits to the head. Maybe a billion dollar settlement will be enough to wake up the NFL. Who knows?