League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth

By Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

(Crown Archetype, $27, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Make that “these authors.” Mark Fainaru-Wada and his older brother Steve Fainaru, (who was a sports reporter for the Hartford Courant in the late 1980s), are investigative journalists for ESPN, so there is a genuine Connecticut connection here. But this book is of national – actually, international – interest. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams wrote the New York Times best-seller “Game of Shadows — Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports.”. Steve covered the Iraq war for the Washington Post and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his investigation into the U.S. military’s reliance on private security contractors. The Fainaru brothers and their families live in California.

What is this book about?

Sports Illustrated calls it “the book the NFL doesn’t want you to read.” That’s because it tells, in damning and heartbreaking detail, the stories of football players damaged and/or driven to death by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which medical studies show was caused by repeated concussions sustained in practices and games. A PBS “Frontline” documentary earlier this fall turned a spotlight on the book and its findings, and a national debate is now underway on whether football can ever be safely played without the possibility of sustaining brain-destroying injuries and whether the National Football League, like Big Tobacco before it, has knowingly downplayed or manipulated research to keep its billion-dollar industry alive.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are a diehard fan who rejects any findings that get in the way of your enjoying a game, you won’t like this book. But that is why you ought to read it. And if you accept that concussions can lead to personality changes, violent behavior, dementia and suicide or other very unpleasant deaths, you ought to read it, too. And if you have a child who wants to play football, from pee-wee to professional levels, you both should read this book. The Fainaru brothers are sharp, meticulous and dedicated investigative reporters. They have written an important book about an important subject: how has enjoyment of a game and the money it brings in come to override the responsibility to treat its players sanely and compassionately?

What others are saying:

Says Kevin Fixler in The Daily Beast: “I’m unable to watch football these days as I used to. I desperately wish I could, but I just can’t. And after you finish reading this book, you won’t be able to either.

The book is League of Denial, from brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada (co-author of Game of Shadows) and Steve Fainaru (2008 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting), and it is one that the National Football League probably wishes was never written. The book explores the football factory that was the city of Pittsburgh, why it became the epicenter of the NFL’s concussion crisis, and how an improbable character by chance flicked the first domino to set off a devastating chain reaction with which the league is still grappling. Since assisting these two ESPN investigative reporters with research on their book, I’ve replaced my weekly excitement waking up in anticipation of an autumn Sunday morning filled with football to one of mostly disgust.

The league recently reached a settlement worth upwards of $1 billion with more than 4,500 former players who sued over negligence. The agreement does not require the NFL to admit any fault in the players’ injuries, and those who represent the league repeatedly declined to assist in the reporting of the book.”

NPR says: “Brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru take an exhaustive look at how the NFL has dealt with allegations that playing football can lead to brain damage. They say the NFL has repeatedly avoided tying football to brain injury, even as it has given disability payments to former players with dementia-related conditions.”

In the Washington Post , former professional football player Nate Jackson author of “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile,” writes: “The NFL sells violent entertainment but keeps it nice and tidy. Networks cut to a commercial when the actors start dripping blood. As long as no one sees it, there are no consequences: There is only the next play. In “League of Denial,” the consequences are the story. Instead of cutting away, Mark Fainaru-Wada and former Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru zoom in on every tau-protein-riddled brain-tissue slide, every hasty NFL rebuttal and every self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The devil is in the details: every page a new demon.…The Fainaru brothers liken the NFL’s denials to Big Tobacco’s old claims that smoking wasn’t bad for you. Turns out it kills. But it also turns out that people still smoke, illuminating an interesting case study in human behavior — one that the NFL might be inclined to consider. Morbidity does not scare people away. In fact, if our co-authors’ interest in the subject is any indication, it draws them closer. The NFL knew exactly what was happening to the brains of its workers, the Fainaru brothers argue, yet withheld this information for fear it might topple the league. This book was depressing for me to read and extremely difficult to get through. Not because of the quality of the work — it is meticulously researched, artfully structured, engaging and well written. It is depressing because of the conclusion, which is fairly simple: Football causes CTE, [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and CTE causes severe cognitive impairment, including dementia and depression. For those affected, life unravels. To highlight the macabre implications, “League of Denial” hangs on the profiles of some of the game’s most thoroughly ravaged players: Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. The fairy-tale NFL life did not end well for these men. The latter two shot themselves in the chest, presumably to preserve their brains to be studied for a disease they were convinced they had. They were right. My only concern with this book and with the head-trauma discussion as a whole is that they will legitimize the suicidal tendencies of former players, will affirm the science of their demons and will give some men a green light to end a suffering that “League of Denial” guarantees will only get worse. For non-football-players, this is an informative, intriguing and sobering book about power and control. I recommend it strongly. For football players, it reads as a death sentence. I encourage my brothers not to open it.

“These investigative reporters have committed a heroic act of journalism. This is not hyperbole. This book may help save peoples’ lives and save families heartache and pain. This book will be the definitive account of the end of the concussion era in the NFL. This book may contribute to the end of the NFL as we know it. This book matters,” says Calvin TerBeek in the Houston Press.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany branch have copies of this book.

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