A sports cartel exposed: “A great conspiracy of money and power.” A recent study of retired players suggested that NFL retirees ages 60 to 89 are experiencing moderate to severe dementia at several times the national rate. “The NFL didn’t just suppress science, or ignore it; it disfigured it …. It is capitalism in its purest form, venal and powerful.”
National Post (Oct. 9) – IT’S HARD to pick out the most essential part of League of Denial, the book written by brothers Steve Fairanu and Mark Fairanu-Wada, or the most vivid scene: agent Leigh Steinberg talking to Troy Aikman after the 1994 NFC championship game in a darkened room, with Aikman’s brain skipping like a record; Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster using shock batons to get to sleep; the NFL’s enduring hostility to the idea that football could be linked to brain damage; the doctors whose research says it is.
The PBS Frontline documentary of the same name attempted to tell the story in two hours on Tuesday night, and did powerful work. The documentary is online. You should seek it out.
But the book dwarfs it. The Fainaru brothers are meticulous: partly because they are both accomplished reporters, and perhaps partly because they have seen how the NFL machine works. The book weaves stories of the men whose brains strangled themselves — Webster, Terry Long, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, on and on, the growing army of the football dead — with the timeline of how the science of brain trauma evolved, and how the NFL reacted to it.
And by the end you are left pondering a great conspiracy of money and power, which in this world is always the most effective kind. The NFL didn’t just suppress science, or ignore it; it disfigured it using a rheumatologist with a degree from a university in Guadalajara who also became then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s personal physician. It hijacked the highly respected medical journal Neurosurgery using New York Giants neurology consultant Michael Apuzzo, who edited the journal. It co-opted science with money, in the old tradition. And it eventually hired some of the doctors who had so intensely criticized it, only to see them adopt the company tune.
This is what the NFL is as an institution — a goliath of money and force that is about as bad as you would probably imagine, if you are of a dark and conspiratorial mind. The game’s appeal is undeniable and so hard to walk away from, which is why so much money was at stake in the first place. And with so much money at stake — and that rocket just keeps exploding to the stars — there was a powerful incentive to protect it from the unpleasantness.
If 10% of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football
And they did, as the book makes clear. The NFL used the same law firm, Covington and Burling, that was instrumental in fighting the wars for tobacco companies. On the scientific side, the NFL’s chief means of resistance to emerging studies on the damage football was doing to players’ brains was its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, which was formed in 1994 and used Neurosurgery to produce 16 papers between 2003 and 2009.
The NFL’s tame doctors said repeat concussions were no more dangerous than single ones, at a time where the league estimated 50% of players returned to games after suffering one, “including 25% with a loss of consciousness.” It stated “professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”
In Paper No. 5 they concluded retired players suffered no long-term brain damage, without actually studying any retired players. In Paper No. 7 they said it might be safe for college and high school players to do the same, rather than “blindly adhering to arbitrary, rigid guidelines;” they had not studied high school or college players. They also said there was no “worsening injury or long-term cumulative effects” to concussions. Paper No. 12 stated “In our opinion, it is unlikely that athletes who rise to the level of the NFL are concussion prone.”
The book details that even as the NFL’s tame doctors fought the fight, and the league itself refused to acknowledge any link between the sport and what it was doing to its former players, its player disability board, which included three representatives from the owners, granted Webster US$1.8-million and wrote that his deteriorating brain was caused by playing football. When Webster fought the disability board all the way to an appellate court, the ruling included reference to “eight other cases of … disability due to brain damage.”
The NFL-approved board was paying damages; it established Plan 88 for players with dementia in 2008; and this year, before the NFL settled with ex-players for US$765-million, commissioner Roger Goodell went on Face the Nation and again refused to admit any link between football and concussions.
The union is conspicuously absent; the science is under attack; opponents, from Dr. Bennet Omalu to Dr. Ann McKee, are targets; the heroes aren’t always pure; money buys a way out. It is capitalism in its purest form, venal and powerful. League of Denial lays it out, one piece at a time, and in so doing becomes an essential book if you want to know how the most powerful sports league in the world was made, and continues to be made. Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race told you what cycling really was; League of Denial does the same for the NFL. Of the 46 brains McKee has examined for Boston University’s Sports legacy Institute, 45 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a degenerative disease linked to concussions.
Will League of Denial change anything? The settlement with players closed the book on what the NFL knew and when it knew it; it has yet to be approved by the 6,000 former players who had signed up for the class-action suit, but changing course would be so hard. As an NFL-affiliated doctor told Omalu in one meeting, “If 10% of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
But that’s a long ways away, if it’s even possible. ESPN pulled out of the PBS documentary after a reported meeting with Goodell, to what should be its lasting shame; it still has a chance to heavily promote the book written by two of its very best employees, but that push hasn’t been readily apparent yet.
Meanwhile, the NFL keeps pushing youth football, and keeps papering over its essence. And Elliot Pellman, the rheumatologist with the degree from Guadalajara, remains on the payroll as a medical advisor.
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