‘Yes NFL Players Are Being Concussed To Death’ Is Pretty Much All You Need To Know About ‘League Of Denial’

You don’t need to follow sportsball at all to have seen the slow but steady drip drip drip of news stories about football players killing themselves, their bodies wrecked, their minds literally crumbling under the weight of concussion-induced trauma. There’s really nothing more gut-punching than reading about, say, Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson choosing to shoot himself in the chest, leaving a suicide note that begged for his brain to be donated for study:

“MY MIND SLIPS. THOUGHTS GET CROSSED. CANNOT FIND MY WORDS. MAJOR GROWTH ON THE BACK OF SKULL ON LOWER LEFT SIDE. FEEL REALLY ALONE. THINKING OF OTHER NFL PLAYERS WITH BRAIN INJURIES. SOMETIMES, SIMPLE SPELLING BECOMES A CHORE, AND MY EYESITE GOES BLURY [sic] I THINK SOMETHING IS SERIOUSLY DAMAGED IN MY BRAIN, TOO. I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW MANY TIMES I SAW STARS IN GAMES, BUT I KNOW THERE WERE MANY TIMES THAT I WOULD “WAKE UP” WELL AFTER A GAME, AND WE WERE ALL AT DINNER.”

On the last page, almost as if he had just remembered something he had forgotten, Duerson provided a handwritten addendum:
“PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.”

In “League of Denial,” ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve Fainaru have written what will surely be the definitive work on the NFL’s attempts to cover up their increasing certainty that their sport was leading to brain damage. Both Fainaru brothers are esteemed investigative journalists, and you can see why. The book is exhaustive. They interviewed pretty much every doctor and scientist that worked on the issue in the last 15 years. They also talked to former players and, in the case of deceased players, their family members. They trace the almost accidental discovery of the disease – eventually given the clunky name of chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE] – by a young medical examiner who just happens to be on duty to perform the autopsy of Mike Webster, a former (and legendary) Pittsburgh Steeler.

The book should be riveting. It is part detective story, as doctors struggle to figure out exactly how concussion is destroying the brain, part intrigue, as the NFL sets up what are essentially sham committees to study the issue while attempting to undercut the actual research at every turn, and part requiem for the players whose lives were wrecked and lost to the disease. The problem is that the first two pieces don’t work nearly as well as the third. It isn’t from lack of information or investigation. You can tell that both of the brothers Fainaru are top-notch reporters, with a Polk award and a Pulitzer between them.

You’ll be completely clear on how the story unfolds scientifically, but it won’t stick in your brain because the narrative isn’t strong enough or interesting enough to cling to. The detective story portion, focusing on just how terribly the NFL behaves during all of this, reaching Big Tobacco-level heights of lying and evil, fares a little better. The book takes you inside the meetings of the disturbingly Orwellian-named Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and shows you how they rig medical journal publications to ensure a steady flow of articles that radically mischaracterizes what researchers keep finding: brains of deceased players show a persistent degenerative disease. Indeed, of the 34 brains ultimately examined, 33 show the disease. Oh, yes – the biggest problem. You can’t confirm a diagnosis of CTE while anyone is alive. You can only confirm it by examining their brain post-mortem. This difficulty made it all the easier for the NFL to deny everything, given that the scientific research turns upon waiting for people to die.

Except die they do. By suicide, by increasingly risky behavior that leads to their death, by the hands of some disease that eats through their memory and their reasoning centers and their impulse control This story is what the book tells best. The breakdown of the men who were gods of the gridiron is devastating. You don’t need to know or care about football generally to be lifted up and torn apart by this. The very thing these men loved doing, the very thing they were best at, the very thing that, in many cases, got them out of a dead-end life, was the thing that destroyed their brains.

Should you read it? Perhaps. It’s a long slog through the doctor-versus-doctor parts, and you may very well get bored or frustrated by those sections. In addition, the brothers Fainaru have an unfortunate fondness for metaphor pileup:

The Webster paper would prove so hot that it ended up scorching almost everything it touched, especially the NFL.

That was the second thing: The big wet kiss Omalu [the medical examiner that first notices the degeneration] had been expecting from the league would not be forthcoming. Instead, the NFL’s doctors took out their scalpels and long knives.

Scorching wet knife kisses. Yipes.

It is probably a better choice to watch Frontline’s companion piece with the same name. Because public teevee is awesome, you can watch the entire thing here. The video format works much better to bring the stories to life, while the book is an exhaustive play-by-play of what happened and when, of who betrayed players the most, and of who fought the NFL the hardest. If you can get past the sometimes-dry/sometimes-overmetaphored writing, you’ll learn so much, and be so sad.

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  • Homestar

    Excellent review. Can’t think of anything else to add… so depressing.