Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book review: League of Denial

As we prepare to sit down for a day of food and football (I will be in Austin tonight for the Longhorns' tilt against Texas Tech), it feels like an appropriate time to talk about the NFL's effort to cover up the fact that football causes brain damage.

In their book A League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru peel back the onion and examine just what the NFL knew about concussions, when they knew it and what they did with the knowledge.

The centerpiece of the story is famed Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster. Iron Mike, as he was known, was a beast on the field. To make up for his size he used his head as a weapon. For some 14 years, Webster pounded his head into other players - and had his head pounded by other players. Once he could no longer play the game due to a long list of lingering injuries and health issues, he was cast aside and forgotten.

His is a familiar tale in the world of professional football where the average career lasts less than four years. And that number is very significant. Most rookie contracts come up for renewal after four years - that's when a team has to decide whether to pay the player more money or cut him loose and replace him with the latest piece of meat taken in the draft. Cutting a player with four years or less of service also means he isn't covered by the league's health plan.

Mike Webster would likely have been forgotten to most football fans had he not died a shell of himself. In the years after he retired, Mr. Webster was both homeless and in need of mental health treatment. After his death a pathologist in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennet Omalu, peformed an autopsy and discovered Mr. Webster had suffered brain damage -- much as boxers have at the ends of their careers.

The league denied there was any link between Mr. Webster's brain injury and football. Ironically enough, the NFL's disability board had already determined there was a link and awarded Mr. Webster compensation for his injuries.

From there the league did its best to cover up the truth, lest they be found liable for not warning players of the risks they faced playing football. The book details the attempts by the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to hide the truth and provide cover for the league. The book also details competing teams of scientists (and publicity hounds) to expose the truth.

The authors are reporters for ESPN and their employers teamed up with PBS's Frontline to produce a two-part episode of the investigative show about the crisis in football. Shortly before the documentary was to air, ESPN severed its ties with the show. The most likely explanation is fear of reprisal from a league that provides much of ESPN's programming.

Just prior to the start of the 2013 NFL season, the league announced it had settled a case with former players who alleged the league knew about the risk of brain damage and mislead the players by not disclosing what it knew. The league agreed to pay the former players $765 million in compensation. The settlement not only settled the league's liability to the players, it also prevented the plaintiffs from putting NFL executives on the stand and questioning them about what they knew and when they knew it.

But, as in many issues between players and the league, the league got the better of the deal. The NFL is awash in cash and the money they will pay out for the settlement will be but a drop in the bucket compared to the money the league rakes in from its contracts with broadcasters.

The league has long gotten its way with the players and the players' union, the NFLPA, is (next to the NHL players' union) the most ineffective player union in sports. For far too long the NFLPA has been the lapdog of the league - which explains why NFL contracts are not guaranteed and why former players are left out on the street to fend for themselves. The ugly truth is that the players in the NFL are nothing more than meat to the owners and the league - once they are no longer useful they will be discarded and forgotten about.

While I am very critical of the NFLPA and the way it has sold out the players' interests, NFL-flacks such as Mike Florio are way off-base when they try to blame the union as much as the league on the brain damage issue. Yes, the union stuck its head in the sand and went along with league denials about the link between football and brain damage - but the difference is that the league had the data and the doctors and they put out misleading propaganda disguised as research to cover its ass.

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