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

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago during the 1980s means that the team of all teams was the 1985 Bears. Walter Payton flew over defensive lines and on occasion did land on his head. To us, it was amazing. To his body, it was brutal.

"League of Denial" [P | I] provides amazing detail into how brutal the game of football is to the human body. On page 5, the Fainaru brothers cite a physicist who calculated a Dick Butkus hit as equivalent to the size of a small adult killer whale. HOLY CRAP!

Ultimately, the Fainaru brothers tell the story of how football players were paid a king's ransom to play a boy's game, but their bodies and brains paid the real price. The NFL told players that they were special. Weaker men, who would be hurt by concussions, had been weeded out. They were the cream of the crop in more than just playing skills, but in how their bodies reacted to injury.

Many of the men highlighted in the book clearly were full of regret for not hurting themselves, but hurting their friends, their brothers in arms. Story after story involves not just brain injury, but loss of employment and ultimately the destruction of many families due to violent behavior and/or economic strain. Even agents, such as Leigh Steinberg, began to question what the hell they were doing.

They also tell of a vast conspiracy that bled into children's lives. See, in an effort to keep NFL players in the dark, the NFL created a whole team of scientists and studies that said, "Concussions? No need to worry about them! They rarely happen and when they do, no big deal." Yet, helmet makers wanted to create the concussion-proof helmet and when they felt they did, they marketed it to parents and youth leagues too. The other issue with the helmets were not just that they didn't protect one from getting concussions, but it left players with a false sense of security -- to hit harder!

And this conspiracy began by an accident. Concussions were never under scrutiny. The chance that one former NFL player happened to die on a day when a curious corner was on duty spurred this whole discussion. Outside of one or two people involved in "discovering" the extent of the concussion issue, all the scientists involved were strong football fans. They wanted to help the NFL make football safer and to keep players as healthy as possible. They never wanted to kill football. Yet, the league quickly dismissed them and framed them as quacks, when they should have worked with them right then and there.
If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, that is the end of football. - page 206
And if you're the NFL who do you turn to to make sure this doesn't happen? Mom bloggers. Yup, in 2012, after a change in leadership, the NFL invited a select group of mom bloggers to NYC to listen to their side of the concussion story. The moms listened to other women: Holly Robinson Peete (Judy Hoffs from "21 Jump Street," wife of a former NFL Player and mom of 4 children), a neuropsychologist & consultant for the Chicago Bears, and a health communications specialist for the CDC (page 322). And yes, the mom bloggers live tweeted that football was safe. One mom blogger, then-Dumb Mom-now-DudeMom, blogged that her concerns arose from the fact her young son started playing tackle football:
I worry that something will get broken, or pulled, or torn, or strained, or sprain. But mostly, I worry that he will be concussed.

And that, friends, is a legitimate worry.

Because kids do suffer concussions on the football field. And, sometimes coaches and parents and other adults involved in the sport aren’t educated enough to keep that from happening; or to respond to it appropriately when it unfortunately does.

That is knowledge I acquired when I went to the NFL offices and sat in on a discussion with USA Football, the CDC, and prominent physicians to learn about a program they call Heads Up Football.

It encourages coaches to teach boys a new, head’s up way to tackle (no leading with their head) and it’s helping to spread awareness about concussion treatment and prevention.

It’s helping parents, coaches, players, and physicians really understand the severity of having your brain bounced all around in your skull in a way that has never before been done.
She goes on to bust concussion myths, but at the same time gives her thumbs up to young people playing tackle football. While this is an individual choice, I wanted to point out, yet again, why word of mouth stuff must be taken with a grain of salt. But we must ask why would the NFL go to this trouble? Because of this quote: "If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, that is the end of football." I asked DudeMom if her sons are still playing and she said yes. She hasn't read the book, only scanned the part where she's quoted.
The things I have learned via my work with Heads Up Football about being a proactive sports parent have helped me make this and a multitude of other decisions when it comes to my sons and their athletics.  They are passionate about the game and I support them in this by being involved and working with the league and our local team to create a better, safer playing experience.
Because the concussion issue does bleed into soccer (Ella's sport of choice & amazing skill), I get why it is important to be a proactive parent. I am merely asking all of us to question the type of junket that DudeMom was a part of.  In soccer, we are advised to not allow for players to head the ball until they are older than 10. This type of precaution is not a part of football, as far as I could find (as always, correct me if I am wrong!). If US Soccer invited me to the same type of event, I would expect you to push me too.

Overall the book will make you think twice about letting your child play football. It will also make fans look at the game differently. I wince when I see guys take a huge hit. I admit to letting out, "ohs!" in the past. In fact, I still do. I do not think that we can take tackling out of football. But we can try to minimize the injuries, especially reducing helmet-to-helmet hits. Ultimately, as fans we must question our role in the fact that our favorite players, such as Jim McMahon, and most hated players, such as Bret Favre, can not remember large parts of their lives.

The book is not perfect. As a scientist, I think they minimize the scientific process, especially the peer review process. That said, there are always points in the process that can and should be questioned. 

The racism that is evident in how Bennet Omalu is treated during the evolution of the concussion debate is often minimized. It is something that should be better fleshed out, as the sexism that Ann McKee faced was.

The cult of masculinity is the real enemy in this puzzle. The hardest part of the book was the section on Dave Duerson, a beloved member of the 1985 Bears, and his evolution from defending the NFL to ultimately committing suicide by shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be studied. His story includes all the tropes - wondering why some players are whining, that "I'm ok, why aren't you?" and on and on. We are told the tale of a smart and loving person who spins out of control. Outsiders see a washed up athlete who can't handle retirement, when in fact he is a deeply wounded person. How often did he get 'his bell rung" and sucked it up to stay in the game for job security?

As a football fan, I wondered if offsides are a function of concussions? Has anyone looked at this? Considering how former players described the sensation of "shaking it off" and heading back in for the next play, I would bet that offside calls could be a detection point.

This is a must read for every football fan and every parent thinking about letting their young children play tackle football. You may still enjoy the game, I do. You may still allow your child to play, as DudeMom does. But at least you will know a likely reason as to why Junior Seau spun out of control in retirement and killed himself.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from a publicist. 

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