Book Review - League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
I finally made it up the hold list at our library to get a copy of League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. I saw the documentary based on the book, and I was interested to get more details on the story about concussions in the NFL and the link to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While there are still questions to be answered about CTE, the evidence is overwhelming that 1) football is far more dangerous than we've been led to believe, and 2) the management of the National Football League (NFL) is no different than the tobacco industry when it comes to protecting a dangerous product.
For those who haven't followed the story about CTE and football... Mike Webster was a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1990. The Steelers played smash-mouth football, and Webster played with reckless abandon when it came to physical contact. When he died in 2002 at the age of 50, he was a physical wreck. But more importantly, he had developed symptoms and behaviors of a person with dementia or Alzheimer's. His death was a big story in Pittsburgh, as "Iron Mike" was a hero and was emblematic of the spirit of Pittsburgh Steelers football. Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who knew nothing about Webster or football, decided to preserve the brain for study related to a different case he had been part of. When he put the brain under the microscope, what he found changed the face of football. The repeated head trauma had caused Webster's brain to be riddled with tau protein, one characteristic of Alzheimer's-type disorders. As additional brains were studied and found to have this same disorder, the NFL went on the offensive to "prove" that CTE was not related to concussions, and that football was a safe sport. The battle continues on, with an entire industry worth billions of dollars hanging in the balance.
Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru (brothers) have done an excellent job in telling their story, both for the personalities involved and the science (or lack thereof) behind concussions. I'm sure the NFL would consider it a very biased telling of a story that is not proven, but it's nearly impossible to reject the brain slides of NFL players who have died far too young and lived their final months and years in a horrible mental state. The authors show the eery similarities between the NFL's position on concussions compared to how Big Tobacco tried to disprove and deny that smoking caused diseases like lung cancer and emphysema.
To be fair to the NFL, there are still questions about CTE that don't yet have answers. If repeated head trauma causes CTE, why don't all NFL players die young and show symptoms? At what level does head trauma become a point-of-no-return when it comes to getting CTE? The pro-CTE researchers show that nearly all their examined brains show tau proteins indicative of the disorder. However, the brains they get for research are almost always ones where the player was showing signs of CTE when they died, so that makes their numbers somewhat self-selecting. You can't test for tau until after the person dies, so there's no way to take a true representative sample. Still, the NFL has actively blocked any real admission of cause and effect, as to do so would open them up to huge liability and possibly write the end of the NFL as it currently exists.
This is a great book that should be read by anyone who loves football but wonders if things have gotten too dangerous for the players. There's a quote in the book that sums up the behavior of the league (and many of the players) when it comes to the effect of concussions and long-term brain health... "A man will not believe something that his livelihood depends on his not believing."
Obtained From: Library