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The League of Denial (2013)

The topic of concussions in sports is a dialogue that’s been growing the past number of years.  Do a search on ‘concussions’ and ‘football’ and you’ll get several thousand hits on the controversy that’s surrounded the sport.  It’s a challenging topic as the research is all relatively new, and the topic itself challenges the mentality and philosophy adopted by football loving Americans.  Now, I’m not a fan of football or NFL but when I saw this book lying at the local bookstore, my interest was piqued.  Although I’m not a fan of football, those that know me know that I’m an unabashed fan of prowrestling.  Talks about concussions are also quite a hot topic even within the prowrestling sub-culture.  Earlier this year, one of the hottest wrestlers of the current era, Daniel Bryan, retired early at the age of 34 due to a history of concussion related issues.  Interestingly, he was not permitted to return to the ring due to the disapproval by WWE’s medical director – a doctor by the name of Joseph Maroon.  It is interesting as Maroon himself plays an antagonistic character of sorts in this book.  While I’m not sure how long he’s been involved with the WWE, he has been a neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers and involved with concussion related forums with the NFL for a number of years.  Hence, his involvement in this book.

Written by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in 2013, League of Denial recounts the discovery of brain injuries (or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as it’s commonly referred) to professional football players as a result of years of head trauma.  The stories are tragic, with relatively young players (in their 40s and 50s) exhibiting behaviors that are more akin to 70 year olds with dementia.  The disease is so degenerative and so unbearable, that a number of times, these former players end their own lives.  But even the way in which these players take their lives is interesting.  There are a number of cases where the players would take a bullet to their own chest, instead of the head, to preserve their brains as best as possible, with the intention of having their heads studied.  They were not well, they knew it, but they couldn’t bear it.

The book follows a number of key neurologists that were involved with the discovery and exploration of CTEs.  One such scientist is a Nigerian doctor by the name of Bennet Omalu, who in many ways is akin to Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.  Here we have two characters, faced with a monumental challenges and whom are seen as underdogs.  Both are small in stature, both unaware of the larger world.  For Omalu, it was the world of the NFL.   He had not even seen a game when the body of a former and Hall of Fame player ended up on the slab at his office.  Upon discovery of the CTE disease, the NFL machine went quickly into denial mode.  Who was Omalu, but an uninformed and un-American man, to tell what the NFL was doing wrong?  However, Omalu was not alone.  It would not be long before a team of neurologists would support his discoveries.

The book not only sheds light on the doctor’s discoveries, but their contentions with the NFL of getting the results publicized and recognized.  It’s the classic battle with the billion dollar industry.  The book (and several people within the book) compare the present concussion situation in the NFL with that of the health issues and “Big Tobacco’s” refusal of acknowledgment years ago in America.

At times, the stories within are frustrating to read, in particular when in-fighting arises amongst the scientists themselves.  On the verge of fighting back the NFL and instigating changes, the scientists disband and form separate groups, allegedly because of egos and attitudes of certain individuals.

As noted above, it’s a challenging issue because the NFL has operated for decades under the growing pattern of providing harder hits and takedowns.  If you were knocked out, you shook it off and got back on the field.  However, medical research says that you shouldn’t get back on the field.  In fact, you should take an extended time off the field to recover from any potential brain related injuries.  However, this contravenes the mentality that’s been adopted and accepted by the NFL.  Pressure from the football subculture would demand that you keep on going.  Football is a sport that’s seeped so deep into the arteries of the country.  How do you go against a mentality that exists through the threads of America? 


The book is a fascinating read and provides insight on an increasingly intensifying topic.  Later geeks!

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