‘League of Denial’ co-authors to visit UMass to discuss book, NFL concussion crisis

By Stephen Hewitt

Flickr/Pesky Librarians
Flickr/Pesky Librarians

ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-authors of “League of Denial,” will be visiting the University of Massachusetts on Thursday for a public discussion about their book and subsequent documentary film. Their book exposes the National Football League’s connection to traumatic brain injuries.

The discussion about “League of Denial,” which is being hosted by the UMass Journalism Department and the McCormack Department of Sports Management, will take place in the Campus Center Auditorium from 6 to 8 p.m.. A book signing will be available after the event.

Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada , who are brothers, have received national attention for “League of Denial,” which was released in October 2013. They have appeared on several ESPN programs, including Outside the Lines, SportsCenter and ESPNews to talk about their critically-acclaimed book.

In conjunction with the book, Frontline aired a two-hour documentary on PBS in October that chronicled the history of the NFL and its connection with brain-related injuries.

“League of Denial” dedicated significant coverage to the story of Mike Webster, a star linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, who received attention after he suffered multiple brain-related injuries over the course of his career. After his death in 2002, Webster’s autopsy revealed that the former linebacker suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repetitive head trauma, which, at the time, was not considered to be common among football players.

Webster’s story kickstarted the brothers’ investigation, the results of which led them to the claim that the NFL denied and discredited findings from independent scientists that linked playing football with brain-related injuries, and that the league knew and withheld information from players about these risks of playing the game.

Those scientists include Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, and Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Boston University CTE Center, whose discoveries are prominently included in the book and film. Omalu conducted Webster’s autopsy and was the first to recognize brain damage as a factor in the deaths of former NFL players, while McKee has examined the brains of 46 former NFL players and found cases of CTE in 45 of them.

The book and film chronicle these findings, as well as the NFL’s battle to debunk claims of the connection between football and CTE. The authors even go as far as to compare the NFL’s actions to the actions of Big Tobacco, the cigarette corporation that covered up the dangers of its product for years.

The brothers also use the stories of the league’s most brain-damaged players to drive home their points. One such player is Junior Seau, who was one of the NFL’s biggest stars, and who committed suicide in May 2012 at age 43. It was later discovered that Seau suffered from CTE.

Mark Fainaru-Wada joined ESPN in November 2007. In March 2006, when Fainaru-Wada was working at the San Francisco Chronicle, he and colleague Lance Williams published the book “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports,” which became a New York Times bestseller and forced Major League Baseball to investigate steroid use in the league.

Steve Fainaru worked for The Boston Globe covering the Red Sox for 11 years before moving to the Washington Post as a war correspondent in 2000. In 2008, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on “Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq.”

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.