Sport Management Speakers Tackle NFL Head Injuries
February 28, 2014
"Growing up, I played football and loved it. I'm a 49ers season ticket holder," noted Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author, Steve Fainaru, in a talk on February 20th to the UMass Amherst community on the implications of head injuries in the National Football League. Sponsored by Isenberg's Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management and UMass Amherst's Journalism department, the presentation, which featured Fainaru and his journalist brother, Mark Fainaru-Wada, explored issues raised in their best-selling book,League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth and its companion documentary, which aired last October on PBS Frontline.
For their research, the Fainarus, as reporters for ESPN, interviewed retired football players in various stages of dementia and other "cerebral" issues as well as neurologists and neuropathologists, who helped the brothers interpret a wealth of forensic medical evidence. What they found were substantial indications of living and deceased ex-NFL players with cumulative brain injuries. NFL players have long known that their profession could inflict chronic bodily harm, observed Mark Fainarua-Wada. That was part of a tacit job description. "I don't think, though, they thought they might lose their minds," he added.
Signals from the NFL. What and when the NFL knew about those findings remain inconclusive because the league has never publically accepted them. No surprise, then, that it repeatedly refused to meet with the Fainarus. Official NFL responses ranging from "no comment" to outright denial, noted the brothers, have dovetailed with the league's initiatives to create its own investigative committee and research arm. That research, added Fainaru-Wada, appears in a neurosurgery journal whose editor is a consultant to the New York Giants. (Without admitting wrongdoing, the league, in fact, has paid out $765 million in settling a lawsuit filed by 4,500 former players who had challenged the NFL's brain injury committee's intentions and findings.)
And 1 ½ months before the League of Denial documentary on PBS, ESPN removed its name from the finished product, explaining to the brothers that it was "a business decision." Still, "the document aired as planned [and] there would have been no book and documentary without ESPN's support. And ESPN has continued to cover our work."
Both brothers emphasized that their aim was never to bash the NFL. It was rather, they said, to include the league's perspective in the interests of responsible journalism. "When we went on Colbert's show, he said, "So you're the guys who ruined football," recalled Steve Fainaru. "That's not what we're about," he emphasized. "I don't know that we want the NFL [its style of football] to change. We like it because it is so physical, [although] we may feel differently at the youth level." Mark Fainaru-Wada concurred: "I feel every hit viscerally, but I still watch," he confessed.