This is the second time that Mark Fainaru-Wada has joined The Luncheon Society. A couple of years ago, Mark and his co-author Lance Williams wrote the well-regarded “Game of Shadows,” which detailed the rise of anabolic steroids, BALCO, and the athletes whose careers were—at first-helped by these drugs—but then ultimately humiliated as their records were removed and their medal were stricken.
Back then–when the denials came steadfast and furious–Mark was convinced that Lance Armstrong was using a cocktail of performance enhancing steroids. He was right. In the end, Armstrong has been exposed as a fraud by his teammates and relegated to a special place where fallen heroes spend their lives in ignominy.
For these athletes, both in the Olympics and within America professional sports, it showed just how plentiful these drugs were for player use. Most perniciously, it showed how American sports fans were more than willing to look the other way as baseball players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa magically bulked up to pound an unbelievable number of baseballs out of American and National League ballparks.
Now Mark Fainaru-Wada joins his brother, Steve Fainaru, to look at another darker area of American sports—the relationship between football and long term chronic illnesses as a result of sustained head injuries.
League of Denial. The story begins in 2002 with the death of Mike Webster, the rugged Hall of Fame Center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went from a crowd favorite to being rendered homeless only a few years after his retirement. By the age of 50 he was dead and his the story of downward cognitive spiral became national news.
This book was central to the PBS Frontline documentary, also titled “League of Denial.”
It also became the basis for the 2015 Will Smith movie “Concussion,” that focuses on the challenges faced by Dr Bennet Omalu in making his case that CTE exists in many football players.
However, while Webster’s death began to focus on the lingering questions of linking concussions to brain damage, it was Webster’s autopsy that was performed by Dr Bennet Omalu–specifically the study of the brain tissues–which opened his eyes. While Webster was only 50 years old when he died, he had the body of an 80 year old, but he also had the brain that was severely damaged upon greater inspection.
While the exterior of his brain looked normal, internal tissue slides showed that he had something far worse—he had all of the symptoms of dementia pugilistica, which many boxers exhibit after too many blows to the head. He also found that Webster’s brain had a number of tau proteins, which impact moods and emotions and mimic the behaviors associated with those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.
What Dr Omalu discovered was something new and dangerous– CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Football is physical game—more so on within a yard of the line of scrimmage where every down represents another battle in hand to hand combat.
Perhaps because Dr Omalu was not born in the United States, he did not grow up around a culture of football, along with how financially powerful the NFL has become in the past several decades. Somebody else might have looked the other way or minimized the findings of what was found within Mike Webster’s brain.
However, after being personally attacked by many affiliated with the NFL or their individual franchises, his initial theories have borne fruit, often as a result of suicides, violent deaths, and the cognitive disintegration faced by an alarming number of retired NFL players. The league could no longer suppress or dismiss what he discovered.
The high profile violent suicides of NFL franchise players like Junior Seau only underline a greater problem. Think about something–many of those who have committed suicide with gunshots to the heart to protect their brains for subsequent study.
Today, over 600 brain and spinal cord samples can be found at Boston College’s Brain Bank from deceased football players and a majority of them contain some sort of CTE damage. Many more NFL players and retirees have made arrangements to donate their brains upon their own death. Moreover, CTE damage is not unique to either football or boxing as the symptomology is appearing in other sports as well.
Around the table with us was Gordon Gravelle, a former defensive tackle Pittsburgh Steeler, who collected two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers and a third Super Bowl appearance when he played of the Rams in 1979 (who were beaten by the Steelers) and he seemed unsure what to make of the current situation. His concerns centered on how players were disposable entities once they outlive their usefulness. Gravelle, after leaving the game, became a successful real estate developer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Below is a Washington Post Column on the book, written by writer and former NFL journeyman Nate Jackson
Published in the Washington Post on November 22, 2013. Nate Jackson is the author of “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile.”
After each of the six seasons I played in the National Football League — 2003 to 2008 — I held on to my helmet as a keepsake. I have since examined those helmets more closely than I ever did while banging heads as a tight end for the Denver Broncos. Just behind and underneath the right earhole is a small, clear sticker. In tiny print, it reads: “WARNING: NO HELMET CAN PREVENT SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES A PLAYER MIGHT RECEIVE WHILE PARTICIPATING IN FOOTBALL. Do not use this helmet to butt, ram, or spear an opposing player. This is in violation of football rules and such use can result in severe head or neck injuries, paralysis or death to you and possible injury to your opponent. Contact in football may result in CONCUSSION-BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent.
. . . Ignoring this warning may lead to another and more serious or fatal brain injury.”
Plain enough. But no one pointed it out. And never do I remember even a cursory discussion of head injuries. Our athletic trainers never brought up the subject. Our team doctors didn’t, either. Our trainers and doctors gave us one talk a year, at the beginning of training camp. They told us to report our injuries, to show up on time for treatment sessions and to make sure we passed the drug tests. This was guidance intended to keep us using our heads on the field — not off.
The NFL sells violent entertainment but keeps it nice and tidy. Networks cut to a commercial when the actors start dripping blood. As long as no one sees it, there are no consequences: There is only the next play. In “League of Denial,” the consequences are the story. Instead of cutting away, Mark Fainaru-Wada and former Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru zoom in on every tau-protein-riddled brain-tissue slide, every hasty NFL rebuttal and every self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The devil is in the details: every page a new demon.
Joe Maroon, the NFL’s first brain specialist, lays out the threat to the league: “If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, that is the end of football.” Whether or not that’s hyperbole, the sentiment sets the stage for a scientific battle over the football player’s brain and establishes what the NFL is risking if the evidence becomes public.
The Fainaru brothers liken the NFL’s denials to Big Tobacco’s old claims that smoking wasn’t bad for you. Turns out it kills. But it also turns out that people still smoke, illuminating an interesting case study in human behavior — one that the NFL might be inclined to consider. Morbidity does not scare people away. In fact, if our co-authors’ interest in the subject is any indication, it draws them closer.
The book begins with the 2002 autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster that turned up a curious disease in his 50-year-old brain. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was known in the medical community but traditionally tied to boxers, not football players. Formerly called dementia pugilistica, CTE is a degenerative brain disease, resulting from repetitive head trauma, that some believe causes symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression and depression. Before Webster’s autopsy, it was thought that the football helmet protected the brain and that brain injuries were not a problem in the sport. For Webster’s family, the new findings helped explain his rapid descent into madness, and they also set the stage for a scientific battle over football players’ brains. The NFL knew exactly what was happening to the brains of its workers, the Fainaru brothers argue, yet withheld this information for fear it might topple the league.
As the authors report, dead football players’ brains were being sliced open; diseases discovered; connections made; foundations and partnerships formed; academic papers published, republished, debunked, rewritten; grants awarded; more brains sliced; lawyers hired; and lines in the sand drawn over and over again between those at war over football brain damage. This debate was going on somewhere else, far away from those of us on the field. And whoever was involved didn’t think we needed to know.
This book was depressing for me to read and extremely difficult to get through. Not because of the quality of the work — it is meticulously researched, artfully structured, engaging and well written. It is depressing because of the conclusion, which is fairly simple: Football causes CTE, and CTE causes severe cognitive impairment, including dementia and depression. For those affected, life unravels.
To highlight the macabre implications, “League of Denial” hangs on the profiles of some of the game’s most thoroughly ravaged players: Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. The fairy-tale NFL life did not end well for these men. The latter two shot themselves in the chest, presumably to preserve their brains to be studied for a disease they were convinced they had.
They were right.
But there’s another aspect to the psychological decline of former football players. My sincere belief is that these men are as tormented by their loss of identity as by any buildup of tau proteins. Of course, they will tell you that the despair is a function of those tau proteins, that a physical brain change leads to depression and suicidal thoughts. And they may be right. But let us also consider the unquantifiable darkness.
A popular question presented to former players in light of the CTE findings is: Knowing what you know now, would you do it all over again? Yes, says the man with his finger on the trigger and the muzzle pressed against his chest, trophies and awards and jerseys scattered around him, a suicide note on the dresser. Yes, because what else is there and who else am I but this? Yes, because I achieved my dream. I did it. It’s done. So what else is there to do but die?
Admitting to having suicidal thoughts isn’t easy, but we have heard former players speak up lately. It’s safe to assume that a small percentage of those who think about killing themselves actually talk about it. So it should give us pause when we hear our former football heroes open up about their suicidal thoughts. It should make us consider the football myth we tell ourselves. It should make us question the motives of those who sell us the sport.
Suicide and depression are not NFL problems: They are human problems. I’ve known a handful of people who have killed themselves; none were football players. The contradictions become too heavy; the promise of the outside world gets torched in the brutal hive of the mind, and only one choice remains. We’ve become accustomed to viewing suicide within a familiar framework, and when something breaks the mold, we look to figure out why. “League of Denial” blames CTE. Why else would a hero want to die?
It is important to study the physical effects of head trauma on depression and suicide, but equally important to consider the psychological trauma of the football player’s post-career identity crisis. In the NFL, the industry writes a fairy tale to sell the game. The athlete is the actor. He plays along; he knows his lines well. But with every platitudinous sound bite and “yes, coach,” the gap between perception and reality widens, pulling him further and further from his true self. Just how far isn’t apparent until his helmet comes off for good and he finds himself alone in the woods. The result is a frightening depression and an identity crisis. But football men are proud and stubborn. They will tell no one.
My only concern with this book and with the head-trauma discussion as a whole is that they will legitimize the suicidal tendencies of former players, will affirm the science of their demons and will give some men a green light to end a suffering that “League of Denial” guarantees will only get worse. For non-football-players, this is an informative, intriguing and sobering book about power and control. I recommend it strongly. For football players, it reads as a death sentence. I encourage my brothers not to open it.
Biography–Mark Fainaru-Wada is an investigative reporter credited with exposing the steroid scandal case known as BALCO. With his colleague Lance Williams, Fainaru-Wada wrote the book Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports, a New York Times bestseller. Since he began working on the BALCO steroid case for the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2003, Fainaru-Wada’s investigative work has earned him a string of national honors. They include the George Polk, Edgar A. Poe, and Dick Schaap Excellence in Journalism and Associated Press Sports Editors awards. Fainaru-Wada and Williams’s book Game of Shadows prompted Major League Baseball to launch an investigation into steroid use in its sport. In May 2006, both reporters were issued subpoenas to testify before a grand jury investigating the source of some of the information they published in The Chronicle and their book. Fainaru-Wada currently reports for ESPN. He has worked at the National all-sports daily, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Steve Fainaru is a correspondent for The Washington Post’s foreign staff. He has covered the war in Iraq since 2004. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2008 for his stories on private armies in Iraq, which included investigations into Blackwater and other private security firms. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Steve has worked for The Post since 2000, previously covering civil liberties and the fight against terrorism and serving as an investigative reporter focusing on sports. Previously he worked at the Boston Globe for 11 years, covering the Boston Red Sox, Wall Street and Latin America. He served as The Globe’s Latin America bureau chief from 1995-1998. Steve, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the co-author of “The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba and the Search for the American Dream,” which chronicled the odyssey of pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and his defection from post-Cold War Cuba. He published another book, “Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries in Iraq.”