Book Review – League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

  • League of Denial – The NFL, Concussions, and The Battle for The Truth
  • by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
  • Publisher – Crown Archetype
  • Copyright 2013
  • 352 pages

Rating – 9/10

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Summary – In the past decade, no organization has fallen harder than has the NFL (National Football League). The revelation that football causes permanent brain damage – and the NFL’s inept, unethical response to players’ head injuries – has cast a cloud over the future of “America’s Game.” League of Denial is a readable, thought-provoking overview of the concussion crisis.

Review – Last week, I was in the middle of another book (The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis) when I came across a copy of League of Denial at my local Dollar Tree. The book details the history of the NFL’s concussion crisis (and the associated condition – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE). I started thumbing League of Denial, reading a bit here, a bit there. Eventually, I dropped The Serpent and The Rainbow and read League of Denial in about 48 hours.

Mike Webster & Bennett Omalu

Perhaps the strongest part of League of Denial is its ability to bring the CTE crisis to life. The authors (brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru) focus on the man some have called the “Patient Zero” of CTE – Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

I’d done quite a bit of reading on CTE and knew the outlines of Webster’s story. Nonetheless, I felt as though I really go to know Webster by reading League of Denial and I even felt a little of the pain suffered by Webster, his family, and his friends. The Fainarus don’t tell Webster’s story all at once; instead, they periodically return to it throughout the book. In the Epilogue, they close the book with an amazing anecdote about Webster that will haunt readers.

Another fascinating character is Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian immigrant who happened to be assigned to conduct Webster’s autopsy in 2002 – and ended up discovering the new condition called CTE. Omalu is colorful, never boring and the Fainarus explain how Omalu’s “outsider” status may have helped his work on CTE. However, they do note that people differed in their opinions on Omalu.

The NFL – Villains

League of Denial is consistent in its portrayal of the NFL, as a heartless entity that always “voted with its wallet” when dealing with concussions. The Fainarus detail how former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue formed an in-house committee to study concussions. The research produced by the committee (which continues under Tagliabue’s successor, Roger Goodell) was bogus science, conducted only to absolve the NFL of any responsibility for the concussions.

One man describes the NFL’s medical experts this way –

“Mental corruption, I think, is what we’re talking about… A man will not believe something that his livelihood depends on his not believing. … These people could not believe that [CTE existed] because it meant that they were marginalized. And that was so clear, that this was about protecting their own stake in the NFL and their positions as medical advisers. And they didn’t give a damn about the data, and they didn’t give a damn about the players” (p. 271).

There are some weaknesses in this material. The Fainarus editorialize too much (for instance, childishly labeling Dr. Ira Casson as “Dr. No” and calling another physician  a “jock sniffer”). They also run on far too long about the parallels between the NFL and the tobacco companies.

Although the NFL’s behavior has been disgraceful, neither the Fainarus nor anyone else has ever come up with a “smoking gun” proving that the NFL knew about the long-term implications of concussions before the 1990s. The lack of such evidence is an unacknowledged hole in the argument that players from the 1980s and earlier deserve to be compensated due to the NFL’s duplicity.

The Researchers – Heroes & Villains – & The Difficulties in Telling the Difference

One aspect of League of Denial that is surprising is its portrayal of the independent CTE researchers (i.e., those not affiliated with the NFL). Often, these researchers are only marginally better than are the NFL’s “mentally-corrupt” experts, pursuing CTE to satisfy their career interests.

For instance, Chapter 17 (“Buzzards”) recounts the events surrounding the suicide of NFL star Junior Seau. In the hours after Seau’s death, various researchers hounded the grieving Seau family in their efforts to obtain Seau’s brain for study. Similarly, The Fainarus portray former Harvard football player and pro wrestler Chris Nowinski as a money- and publicity-hungry opportunist who exploited the concussion issue in hopes of personal gain. (Even more disappointing is the fact that the NFL often managed to buy off some of its toughest critics by providing money for their research).

In the end, while many of these researchers were on “the right side of history” by helping to reveal the concussion crisis, their good deeds were incidental. The researchers were a lot like the NFL owners – interested in the players only for what the players could do to advance the researchers’ interests.

The Future?

The book’s biggest shortcoming is not the fault of the Fainarus – the reader wants to know what will happen next. Some people have suggested that football is in a “death spiral” that will resemble what has happened to boxing since the discovery of pugilistic dementia in 1928.

I won’t even hazard a guess about the future. At present, I know that I can’t watch football without some reservations – but I’m still a fan. Anyone who wants to know why football is so troubled would do well to read the Fainarus’ entertaining, thought-provoking book.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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