Wednesday, April 16, 2014

League of Denial. The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

Image from -
read as a digital loan
 from the library
...[T]he momentum transferred in [fully armored players colliding] is still the equivalent of being hit in the head by a 10-pound cannonball traveling at 30 miles an hour.

League of Denial tracks the efforts of medical professionals to prove that suicides and Alzheimer's-like behavior from mere 50-year-olds after a career in NFL weren't just because of steroid use (something NFL attempted to claim) or because the players just happened to have a multitude of mental problems anyway. For over a decade, the NFL denied any connection between football and brain injury in the players, while at the same time secretly paying disability for brain damaged players.

The brain damage we are talking about is not about just seeing stars after a collision: this is an otherwise healthy athlete suddenly waking up at a bus station in a completely different city, not knowing how he got there; looking down at his kid and forgetting who he is looking at; writing letters upon letters in Flowers for Algernon style to anyone who might listen to him, in type and words that are slowly deteriorating into nonsense while the writer himself acknowledges that he can't make sense of words anymore. And then there were the suicides and the violence, brain damage causing players to make rash, illogical decisions.

Once the news about brain studies on football players spread, at least two players who committed suicide did so by shooting themselves in the heart to prevent damaging the brain, leaving behind notes requesting that their brains be donated to the studies to expose the dangers in football and to improve players' conditions and rights.

This book isn't set out to change football fans to haters: I still enjoy watching football after reading it. Now I just know what people have gone through in the history of the game, and how we have gotten here with plenty of rules that should prevent people from getting hurt so badly on the field. Yet, concussions are still considered as meh, it happens. Or the answer to concerns is, Well, don't play football if you don't like it. I would not want to banish football, but we do need to take care of the people who are offering us multibillion buck entertainment and deep, primal feelings for human tribalism that can't really be easily evoked otherwise than through team sports.

The League of Denial appreciates football, but criticizes the approach NFL had toward all studies and evidence showing that their players were being brain damaged, and that something should be done to help them. The studies were planning on making the NFL a safer place for players, but were met with resistance in fears of losing a lucrative business in the process. If NFL admitted that playing football was causing severe brain damage, what parent would ever want to put their kids into training?

This was an easy read except around midway, where Big Tobacco and their denial of smoking having any relation to causing cancer becomes the focus as a lengthy analogy to the case against NFL. Sure, both parties were motivated by the same (money) and would come up with their own teams of scientists to disprove independent studies, but I ended up skimming through the tobacco business parts as there was a lot of it, I was familiar with the Big Tobacco case already, and I couldn't wait to get back to the topic at hand: football.

The authors are at their best when they describe the coroners at work and their personalities, and the everyday life of damaged football players and their families. Although the court room bits and spats between the NFL and scientists are interesting, it occasionally got a bit too detailed for me. Do I need to know that some guy almost threw up when he was giving a speech because he had food poisoning, as it wasn't really relevant to the said speech or event?

Kids are still playing football, but hopefully in an ever safer environment, where coaches, parents, and sponsors involved have better information about the potential dangers the sport may cause if safeguards are not in place. Breaking a leg or an arm seems to happen to almost any athlete, but I find it easier to reconcile limited motion than permanent damage to the way humans process their thoughts and communicate with others.