"League of Denial" blames the NFL for concussions and broken lives, but we're all guilty

Allison Joyce

The victims are the players and their families, the disputed heroes the coroner and other doctors who made the initial diagnosis on Steeler great Mike Webster, and the obvious villain is the NFL. But we all share in the blame.

The book "League of Denial" by Mark Fainaru-wada and Steve Fainaru chronicles the keystone events of the ongoing concussion issue facing the NFL. It starts with the heart-wrenching final years' of Mike Webster's life, the retirement of Merrill Hoge and San Francisco 49ers QB Steve Young for medical reasons, through San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau's suicide and finally the NFL's recent settlement of the class action lawsuit in 2013. The perspective of the book is clearly anti-NFL and not without reason, but the authors fail to delve beyond the surface of describing in painful detail the NFL's years of denial and laying blame solely at the greedy feet of the most successful sports league in this country.

It is a well written book despite its not-so-subtle slant, and does an excellent job at creating a compelling story line surrounding the chronology of events that has brought the physical, mental and emotional risks of the game of football to the forefront of America's consciousness.

But in this poignant yet sordid tale of greed, denial and professional hubris there is culpability to be shared on many fronts; from the NFL under Paul Tagliabue who wanted nothing to upset their golden goose, to many of the medical professionals engaged by both sides of the issue who allowed the lure of fame and the artifice of peer pressure to corrupt their judgment, to the coaches, trainers and other football professionals, including the players, who clung to antiquated concepts of athletic machismo and mental toughness to preserve their place in the game, and ultimately to all of us who ignored what is now obvious in search of another weekly emotional high from the social drug that is professional football.

By the end of the book the NFL is clearly the culprit in delaying recognition of the magnitude and severity of the concussion problem in the game of football, but there is no asking of why; why it took decades of games and thousands of players, until September 24, 2002, the date of Mike Webster's death, for all the clues to begin getting pieced together.

As a lifelong fan of the type of smash-mouth football that will forever be associated with the Steelers of the 1970's, I can't help but feel in some small way culpable for the destitution and the physical and emotional pain my heroes of that era (and all that have followed) have suffered through in the years after they retired from football. My voice was one of tens of thousands cheering Mike Webster on as he smashed his head into defensive opponents game after game, physically dominating them for the glory of the moment, but at the expense of his future. I twirled my Terrible Towel with all of Steeler Nation as Merrill Hoge lowered his head and rammed into linebackers fighting for a first down in hopes of restoring to his contemporary Steeler teammates the faded glory their predecessors enjoyed.

It was by the spending of our hard earned money to buy tickets, hot dogs and beer, jerseys, magazines and other paraphernalia and our enslavement to the television set week after week that contributed to the game of professional football growing into the financial empire it is today, and tainted us with involuntary culpability for our heroes' loss of precious memories, fits of rage, emotional turmoil and eventual descent into a mental hell in which we can only imagine the anguish they and their families suffered without knowing why.

And forever beyond our ken is the depths of despair that drove Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and untold others of these once proud and physically gifted athletes to resort to suicide. Death by their own hand the only possible recourse their impaired mental conditions allowed them to conceive in order find surcease for themselves and their families from their deteriorating mental capacities resulting from our insatiable appetite for the bone crushing hits, unstoppable defenses and the ephemeral and indirect glory we demanded as our right to bask in as "we" won championships or dominated a hated opponent. These men who we revered for never giving up on the field, who refused to acknowledge the searing headaches and blurred vision they endured for days after a game, the inability to remember the immediate circumstances preceding their being knocked senseless, or some like Troy Aikman who still can't remember an entire championship game, all because admittance of such symptoms would be seen as an admission of weakness and possibly provide the opening a younger, faster, stronger, lower paid player might need to supplant them from the pedestals we had placed our football heroes upon.

The authors of this important book mirror the attitude of current American society and its mass media and look to assign blame solely to the NFL and the owners of the team that make up the league; what they fail to recognize is that collectively, our medical profession, the players' agents and union representatives (the NFLPA) and our society at large is ultimately to blame.

In 1905 President Teddy Roosevelt met with the heads of Princeton, Yale and Harvard to address the hazards of the game; in 1905 alone, 18 men died while playing the game. The primary changes in the rules of the game and the way it was played that came out of that meeting dealt with reducing the risks to the players resulting from gang tackles, mass formations (the wedge on kickoffs) and the distance it took to get a first down to reduce the need for players to smash their bodies in the center of the line.

The hazards of repeated blows to the head have been medically recognized in the sport of boxing since 1928 when Harrison Martland published a paper associating the term "punch drunk" commonly used in boxing circles to neurodegenerative disease.

The symptoms suffered by "punch drunk" boxers as cited by Martland are so eerily similar to those described in "League of Denial" as being suffered by most of the players named in the book that it is dumbfounding that it wasn't until Bennet Omalu's investigation into Mike Webster's death , 74 years after Martland's discovery, that we as a society suddenly realized the game of football entails blows to the head, and only now have we stopped laughing at a player who wobbles around seeing stars. We've stopped laughing but we complain that the current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is ruining the game by making and enforcing rules that are eliminating the kinds of hits we scream for and wildly cheer when our team performs them.

We all share a collective culpability in the concussion issue facing the game of football today because no one connected the dots between the physicality of the sport we so slavishly follow and what we knew as far back as 1928 from the sport of boxing. Why didn't any medical professionals , coaches, trainers, fans of boxing recognize the similarity between the blows to a head a boxer endures and the smashing of heads into one another on a football field? All of us who watched the Opening Ceremony in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games saw Muhammad Ali and the condition he was reduced to after a long successful career as a heavyweight boxer, yet the football players of that generation were bigger, stronger and faster than almost any heavyweight boxer, and these football players hit each other while moving as fast as they can hundreds of times more than a boxer ever would be hit; how could we all have missed such an obvious similarity in the two sports after seeing what happened to Ali?

For that matter, one of the earliest documented uses of a helmet in a college game was in 1893 when U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman Joseph M. Reeves devised a protective cover made out of mole skin after a Navy doctor told him he risked death if he suffered another kick to the head. If helmets were made mandatory in the 1930's, after more than 70 plus years why didn't anyone ask why ex-football players were acting like "punch drunk" boxers despite wearing a helmet?

The perfidy of the NFL in its despicable attempts at refuting the connection between Mike Webster's use of his head as a battering ram for 17 years as a professional center and the degenerative state of his brain at the time of his death cannot be underscored enough. The NFL even granted Webster disability benefits in 2000, albeit after years of denial and legal battles, acknowledging that the medical reports submitted by Webster's attorney "...indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs."

However, the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, formed in 1995 in response to the growing concern over the effect of concussions on football players refused to acknowledge Omalu's findings in regards to Webster, and over the subsequent decade the medical professionals who were members of this board wrote paper after paper after paper discounting the growing medical evidence connecting the medical symptoms suffered by former players and the nature of the game itself, as well as touting questionable studies of their own that purported to highlight how minor an issue concussions were in the game of football. As the two sides argued with each other in supposed learned medical journals, no one on the sidelines of the issue watching this farce, not the journalists, other doctors, coaches or trainers of either football or boxing, or us fans of both sports make the obvious connection and so more years passed and more lives were impacted.

The NFL rightfully settled the class action lawsuit brought by thousands of former players and their families. The $765 million (plus attorney fees of $200 million) is a small fraction of the worth of the NFL but is nonetheless a sizable penalty for the NFL's decade plus stance of denial. The lawsuit continues for the co-defendant, the football helmet manufacturer Riddell who was not part of the settlement. This company, which deserves along with other helmet manufacturing companies to be penalized at least as harshly as the NFL for at the end of the day they are the ones who are supposed to be the "experts" in designing and constructing the equipment that protects the brains and futures of all football players, professionals as well as the tens of thousands of amateur players in college, high school and recreational leagues. These companies hide behind the standards their helmets are supposed to meet as promulgated by NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment), but don't publicly disclose that the NOCSAE is a private nonprofit organization funded by those same sporting goods manufacturers.

The authors of "League of Denial" weave a tale blaming the NFL but they fail to discuss except in brief passing the culpability of the NCAA which plays a similar role as the NFL in college football, and touches the lives of thousands more players than the NFL ever will. There is no discussion of how much damage suffered by Webster, Seau and others came from their playing time as high school or college players. The male brain continues to grow through a man's early twenties; the repeated blows suffered by high school and college players surely impact the healthy development of their brains, yet the authors make it sound like the NFL is solely to blame.

We all, fans and players alike, know that football is inherently a dangerous sport. We all make a conscious decision to engage in the sport, whether as players accepting the risks, or fans accepting the fact that our very fandom makes the opportunity possible for the players to assume such risks.

We now all should know that we fans, Owners of professional teams, college presidents and players alike, our very society all share the blame for our past denials and our culpability for future injuries going forward.

This is the core issue that must be solved by both fans and players alike with the answer acceptable to all for the game of football to survive: For the players, is the benefit in terms of money and fame worth the risk to the decades of their life after football? For the fans and our society as a whole, is the emotional joy we derive from watching football worth knowing that some, many, or most of our favorite players may one day end up like Mike Webster?

We all must resolve for ourselves that either we accept the consequences of participating in football as we now know it, or accept that the very nature of the game itself must change.

While books such as "League of Denial" fail, either on purpose or inadvertently, to address these larger questions, this book at least dissects and lays bare the ultimate cost of our favorite pastime.

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