Concussions have plagued football since the NFL was created. But recently, the high number of suicides by former NFL players has caused the media and players to question the safety of the game. Doctors believe these deaths may be due to damage from the repeated blows to players’ heads, which eventually led to mental illness. This disease has become known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru follows the career and post career of NFL Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who played in the NFL for 17 years and received the award after playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974-79.
The book describes the first time a doctor performed an autopsy on Webster’s body, calling it, “One of the most significant moments in sports history.” Webster’s brain had sustained so much damage from his career in the NFL that the doctor said it looked like “the brain of a boxer, an old person with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone who has just had a severe head injury.” Starting the book with this scene drew me in and made me curious about Webster’s life and career.
Full of rich details, this book describes the careers of other NFL players – who also suffered concussions and experienced memory loss and other signs of CTE. But the most interesting part of this book was the exclusive information the authors obtained from doctors and researchers who worked for and against the NFL to address the concussion crisis.
The book alleges that the NFL has tried to cover up the research doctors are doing on concussions because it could damage football’s popularity and reputation – resulting in major financial loss for the League. The book reveals the NFL’s efforts to keep this groundbreaking research secret.
Although overall a fascinating read, I thought the author could have connected the story of Mike Webster to the research better. At times League of Denial would talk about Webster’s career, then unexpectedly switch to discussions of modern research.
Nevertheless, I was able to connect with this story because I used to play football and also suffered a concussion. After I was injured, my parents insisted I stop playing. They knew if I continued to play in high school and possibly even in college, my chances of sustaining long-term brain damage were high.
Overall, I enjoyed this book’s interesting facts and descriptions of groundbreaking scientific discoveries. It opened my eyes to the dangers of football and made me glad that I decided to quit the sport early, even though I enjoyed playing.
The parts about the NFL’s attempts to cover up research were a nice parallel – I couldn’t believe some scientists had been threated to discourage them from releasing their findings. I would recommend this book for any sports fan and readers who enjoy science-based books. It gives good insights into the extremely competitive nature of professional sports, both on and off the field, and encourages discussion on how to combat the health issues we are only starting to understand.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.