‘League of Denial’ authors discuss book, documentary at UMass

‘League of Denial’ authors discuss book, documentary at UMass

By Mark Chiarelli

4 Questions with Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru from Daily Collegian on Vimeo.

The University of Massachusetts hosted ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on Thursday night, as the brothers discussed their book and documentary “League of Denial” for over two hours in the Campus Center Auditorium.

Both authors spoke at length about the reporting process that contributed to such an intricate story and offered insight into learning about the concussion issue in football. “League of Denial” was released in October of 2013 and a two hour Frontline documentary subsequently aired on PBS.

The book uncovered the National Football League’s involvement in hiding and insufficiently educating players about the risks of brain-related injuries in football. “League of Denial” claimed the NFL denied that playing football directly led to brain-related injuries despite evidence proving contrary.

“I thought of it as a great story,” Fainaru-Wada said when asked about investigating an entity as large as the NFL, which generates $10 billion in revenue a year.

He added he wanted to know, “What did the NFL know and when did it know it?”

Wainaru-Fada said the initial story began between two and three years ago when he was assigned a story on former Minnesota Vikings player Fred McNeill, who suffers from early onset dementia. McNeill filed for workers’ compensation in the state of California against the Vikings in 2011.

From there, the brothers realized the story ran deeper. Fainaru noted they realized that the NFL’s withholding of knowledge on brain-related injuries in football could become an “epic story with profound implications.” But they also learned they’d need to educate themselves on the scientific aspect of brain injuries.

“It was clear from the very beginning we had to go to school, we were in over our heads,” Fainaru-Wada added.

The brothers met with Pittsburgh-based and Nigerian-born forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, a key component of the book. Omalu performed the autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster, who played 17 seasons in the NFL. Webster died at the age of 50 from a heart attack and was a critical component of the story.

Omalu observed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in Webster’s brain consistent with what is normally suffered from a severe head wound. Webster exhibited symptoms consistent with CTE, which were memory loss, incoherence and irrational anger. The findings laid the groundwork for “League of Denial.”

“(Omalu) knew nothing about football, yet he completely changed football as we know it,” Fainaru said.

“League of Denial” heavily investigated both Webster and former San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, who played 20 seasons in the NFL. Seau committed suicide in 2012 and his brain exhibited signs consistent with CTE as well.

The brothers initially had the support of ESPN, which attached its name and planned to co-produce the accompanying “League of Denial” documentary. But ESPN and the NFL also have a significant business partnership, as ESPN pays $2 billion to the NFL for the rights to broadcast Monday Night Football. With just a month of production remaining, ESPN pulled its name from the documentary.

When asked if he felt “some disappointment” from the decision, Fainaru-Wada said, “Some disappointment would be a vast understatement.” He later added he was “floored, disappointed and troubled.”

But the operation continued, and the documentary’s release garnered Frontline some of its strongest ratings ever. The book also appeared on the New York Time’s best-seller list.

The brother’s also discussed working in conjunction to write their first-ever book together. They initially did the majority of the reporting together, but “organically” divided the reporting over time as each found their comfort zone. Both enjoyed working together.

“The thing about Mark is it’s interesting to work on a project for two years with your brother,” Fainaru said. “You think you know somebody as well as you could and then you find depth and intimacy you didn’t even realize.”

Fainaru-Wada was equally complimentary of his older brother, who won a Pulitzer award in 2008 for his reporting on the Iraq War.

“Steve is the best reporter I know,” Fainaru-Wada said. “Steve has the ability to see stories in ways I don’t think most people do.”

Ultimately, both writers acknowledged that violence is ingrained in the culture of football. Through “League of Denial,” they hoped to convey the NFL withheld potentially life-altering information to players.

“There was an understanding (for players) your body could fall apart,” Fainaru-Wada said. “But I don’t think there was an understanding they could lose their lives.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at m[email protected] and followed at @Mark_Chiarelli.