League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

league-of-denialSo here goes: my favorite sport is barbaric; it is destroying its players brains; Its prime pro league is doing everything it can to champion wealth above health; it may not be fixable.

The crux of League of Denial is that an increasing amount of dead football players appear to have brains riddled with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. An unfortunate amount of those deaths were self inflicted or premature, due to the disease. Worse, it does not seem that CTE is linked to one big hit, but to repeated small-medium-large hits and improper diagnoses or insufficient recovery times leading to players returning to the field before they are healed. Worse still, due to the huge amount of money on the line and the hyped up over-the-top machismo of football culture that demands a man be able to take a hit or give one (lest he take an unassailable hit to his manhood), the players falsely report their symptoms as much as possible and clamber to get back into the game.

This would be bad enough, especially the notion that it is merely repeated hits as the cause, an unerring staple of the sport, that is leading to broken brains. But on top of all this, the NFL, in a modern day bid to mimic Big Tobacco, is refusing to admit that football causes brain damage. They have been discrediting legitimate scientists, publishing propaganda, buying out dissenters, burying evidence, and propping up false science committees with silly names (the mild traumatic brain injury committee) for decades. Their efforts have had cascading effects; skewed studies have led to equipment manufacturers scamming high schools with “concussion-lessening” helmets that do not change a thing. The players recently settled a 765 million dollar suit with the NFL, which was tragic and foolhardy, because now we will never know just how much the NFL covered up.

SI.com has published an article written by Seahawk’s cornerback Richard Sherman where he proclaims that football is a dangerous sports but the players know the risks and he complains about newer rules like not being allowed to hit a defenseless receiver. It’s sadly ironic because shortly before he shot himself in the chest (to preserve his brain for study), Bear’s great Dave Duers was on his radio show railing against the same rules, whining about the “wussification” of the NFL. Prior to ending his life, Duers typed out a treatise explaining the dementia and madness he felt in his later years, where he was described as a “different man” by friends and family. His deathnote / final text messages urged his ex-wife and fiancee to donate his brain to the NFL for study. On top of that, Sherman (and everyone else) does not know the true risks of football because the NFL still refuses to admit to brain damage and study.

Brain damage is horrifying, regardless of its source. You would be right to condemn a man who shoves his wife, who explodes into inexplicable fits of paranoid rage at the drop of a hat. Yet how do we account for it, how do we address it when these are sudden changes in middle age, when there is a very high chance they are a result of brain damage due to playing football? These aren’t outsiders, they’re endemic. Of fifty four brains of players that neuropathologist Anne McKee has studied, fifty two had signs of CTE.

I love football. A great game is intoxicating. Acquaintances or people who have otherwise known my company only outside of football games express shock and bemusement at my change of tone, demeanor, and frenzied enthusiasm when first watching a game with me. The book goes at lengths to show that the vast majority of the dissenters, the people raising a stink about safety and combating the NFL, are like me. They love football too.

“The game was part of him, part of his American story. That’s the thing about football, why it’s different from cigarettes and coal dust and not wearing your seat belt and a whole range of other things that have been proved bad for us. We love football. Americans by the millions are complicit in making this sport what it has become, for better or worse. The outcome of the NFL’s concussion crisis will affect the country. But it will be determined not by the “enemies” or “opponents” of football but by those in love with the sport; the players, the fans, the advertisers, the book writers, the moms and dads and kids. Even the scientists.”

It’s true. Football props up entire communities in America — the sole recreation other than substance abuse to many economically depressed areas. It sits upon a pedestal with God and Church as the only escape to youth in some urban communities. And like the protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Rajesh Parameswaran’s I am an Executioner, We the People, are responsible in part for the violence and brain obliterating nature of football. It exists as it does today because we willed (watch) it. And it will only survive if the fans push for safety and brain damage to be acknowledged and addressed. And that is hard. There is no simple fix like banning horse collar tackles or chop blocks. Even after reading League of Denial, I’m still pissed a few days after my Patriots lost to the Jets in OT due a stupid new rule. A stupid new rule amended to the rulebook to help player safety. What is wrong with me?

And not being able to push your fellow linemen on field goal attempts (the new rule) is hardly going to solve the concussion crisis. There will need to be more drastic changes, and the question is: can you maintain the essence of the sport with whatever needs to be taken out?

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