This is a book that was hard to put down. It also hit like a sledgehammer. It clearly shows that the National Football League didn’t just ignore a problem that caused deaths in retired players, it chose to ignore that problem. Furthermore, the NFL didn’t just deny that the problem existed, it campaigned against those that tried to tell it and the football community that the problem existed. For a book about sports, it is extraordinarily thought provoking. If you read one sports related book this year, make it this one.
League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru is well written and seems to be well researched. It would be easy to write it off saying the authors weren’t objective enough, but it’s hard to make that claim when the NFL wasn’t cooperative. The book brings up problems with and among “the Dissenters” and it’s clear that you could question the motivations of some on both sides of the issue. That isn’t something that was made clear in the PBS Frontline show associated with the book. After reading the book and watching the Frontline episode, I have to question the objectivity of the TV program even with the lack of cooperation from both ESPN and the NFL.
Perhaps because I grew up a New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers fan, this book hit me particularly hard. The Steelers figure prominently in this book because the first known victim of CTE was Steeler Mike Webster. As a result, many of “the Dissenters” originated in the Pittsburgh area. Other players involved were among those that I looked up to as football heroes, such as Harry Carson. One of the players who committed suicide was Junior Seau, who was one of my contemporaries age-wise. When you read about the troubles that these men who came into your house via television every Sunday afternoon, it really hits home.
Another reason this book really made an impression on me is how similar the NFL head injury problem seemed to be to the problem with head injuries in NASCAR. Both the NFL and NASCAR were slow to recognize that there was a problem in their midst despite the increasing number of deaths among former players in the NFL and deaths of drivers in racing accidents. That said, the difference between how the NFL handled it and how NASCAR seemed to handle it was indeed different. NASCAR seemed to have their head in the sand and were ignorant to what was causing the deaths for awhile. The NFL on the other hand, was given information indicating the cause of the deaths but chose to deny that CTE was a problem and campaigned against “the Dissenters” who were bringing attention to CTE. Ultimately, in their efforts to “Protect the Shield,” Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell tarnished the shield, possibly beyond repair. It will be a said indeed if either are ever elected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
I am a life long football fan, but after reading this book I am seriously questioning my love of the sport. Can the danger of traumatic injuries be mitigated? Is it worth ruining the post-football life of our football heroes for a Sunday afternoon of entertainment? These are questions that still need to be answered. As the book shows, there are still questions to be answered and the NFL needs to get behind and stay behind the quest to answer them. This goes beyond what is beneficial to NFL players and retired NFL players. The actions of the NFL will have a trickle down effect on how College Football treats the problem of CTE, on how High School Football treats it, on how youth football treats it, etc. The NFL truly does hold the key to how the game of football handles the problem of CTE>
It is hard to reconcile the NFL’s attempts to deny that CTE was caused by playing football, to discredit those trying to prove that it did, and their treatment of players who had it and were trying to get fair compensation for injuries caused by the career in football. It is extraordinarily hard to maintain any respect for the league after reading this book. I’m not ready to quit watching football, but I will definitely be changing how I look at hard hits. Going forward, I will refuse to purchase any NFL licensed products and will try to do a minimum of business with companies who are “The Official whatever of the National Football League.”