Last week, somewhere between a grenadine-red sunburn and a poolside piña colada, I sunk my teeth into “League of Denial,” a recent book by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. Its premise — that, since the 1990s, the NFL has “used its power and resources to attack independent scientists and elevate its own flawed research” on the long-term health impacts of concussions — was more than enough to shake my faith in professional football, not to mention the serenity of my Hawaiian vacation.
Don’t worry; I won’t spoil the disturbing details of the alleged cover-up, which were intended as the book’s main takeaways. Instead, I have something to admit.
To this point, I haven’t taken concussions seriously.
As a die-hard football and hockey fan, I hear about head injuries all the time. But what does a concussion really mean to me? Chances are, it will elicit one of three reactions: I’ll gear up for the disappointment of a Sharks slump after the loss of a top defenseman, I’ll scurry to tweet a juicy tidbit of Cardinal football news after a post-practice press huddle or — god forbid — I’ll scratch my head as I tweak my already shaky fantasy lineup.
Chances are you’re a lot like me. For those of us whose athletic dreams were squelched, sport-by-sport, far too early for repetitive head injuries (other than the slicing-open-on-kitchen-cabinet-corners variety) to even become a reality, a concussion became just a sentence in a newspaper report or a footnote on a list of scratches.
Even in situations where concussions weren’t so depersonalized, I was slowly lulled into believing that — although a dangerous, diagnosable medical condition — they weren’t the end of the world. A friend of mine laughed as he blamed a dumb comment he had made on the concussions he had likely sustained as a defensive lineman in high school; an interview subject joked about the Tau deposits (a key contributing factor to CTE and Alzheimer’s) that offensive linemen rack up as part of their thankless job on the football field. Another interviewee, this one an NFL player, was almost in awe as he remembered a particularly bad concussion in college, describing the experience as bizarre more than anything else.
Of course, I knew that concussions were rewriting the rules of my two favorite sports. I’d read about the settlement that will force the NFL to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to thousands of its former players. And yeah, I’d heard the news about Junior Seau and Derek Boogaard and other professional athletes whose deaths were linked to concussions. But somehow, just like the NFL has done over the last 20 years, I forced myself to rationalize those things — to preserve my little snow globe of fanhood. Instead of sinking in, those deaths became blurred with the myriad others I saw in the news. The impact of those headlines faded, and I went back to watching football and hockey the way I always had.
And then, with palm trees swaying overhead, I cracked open “League of Denial.”
Before getting to the NFL’s thorough efforts to refute its growing concussion crisis, the book recounts the frightening post-retirement decline of Hall of Famer Mike Webster, a former Steelers center who suffered from CTE, the disease linked to repetitive head injury in athletes. Each detail was more disturbing than the last: Webster’s abrupt change in personality, from focused and caring to indecisive and delusional; the implosion of his family life; the lack of financial stability that forced him to sleep in his SUV, if not in train or bus stations; his addiction to painkillers; the mounting rage toward NFL officials that led him to acquire an arsenal of firearms; the hundreds of incoherent letters he wrote, all too emblematic of his mental state, in the final years before his death in 2002, when he was just 50.
Those first hundred pages were like a coconut from above. They drove reality home in a way that newspaper headlines, abundant as they were, never could. Concussions don’t just ruin my team’s spot in the standings — they ruin lives. And they’re categorically different than any other injury that shows up next to my fantasy lineup.
“It figures that at age 40, an athlete is going to have a tough time reaching over to pick up his child,” sports agent Leigh Steinberg was quoted in the book. “It’s another dimension not to be able to recognize that child.”
As a fan, that understanding changed things. Cringing at the sight of a big hit will take on a whole new meaning for me, and it’s hard not to reconsider certain aspects of the sports I hold dear. Was my vociferous argument that fighting really belongs in hockey, penned a year and a half ago, far too shortsighted? Is football as we know it unsafe by its very nature, despite claims of safer helmets and mouth guards (which have been debunked repeatedly by independent researchers) and stricter rules in both pro and college football (which are far from eliminating the problem)?
I’m still struggling to answer those questions, but at the same time, my perspective as a journalist has shifted drastically as well.
If you’re reading something about how concussions have affected a player, chances are they a) are currently on your favorite team’s injury report, b) just retired due to head injury or c) just died due to a particularly aggressive case of CTE. That coverage is, in a word, minimalizing. It reduces a concussion to a one-time news item, like an ankle sprain or a car accident, while ignoring the human impact that tugs at our heartstrings and that won’t be replaced by tomorrow’s news. You can’t tell me the reports we read in the paper come close to encapsulating the full effect of concussions in this country, and as an avid consumer of those reports for 21 years, I never even began to appreciate the role that head injuries play in countless athletes’ lives.
Journalists, myself included, do our readers a disservice when we spin a concussion as an event. In reality, it’s a story, one that can play out over a lifetime for our favorite athletes. “League of Denial” told those stories well, and they changed the way I see football. For the sport’s ugly repercussions to be understood more widely, journalists should approach everyday coverage from that perspective.
This age of endless sports news is every fan’s island paradise. But when it comes to concussions, the coconuts are there. It’s time they started falling.
While Joseph Beyda’s perspective on concussions has changed after reading “League of Denial,” evidence of the aforementioned grenadine-red sunburn remains. Send him your best remedies for sunburns at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.