Coming to a bookstore and TV near you tomorrow is “League of Denial” a book and documentary about one of the dirty little secrets the NFL has been avoiding for some time. Fortunately, I have been provided with advance copies of both; the Frontline film was easy to digest, as for reading a book, well we can just say I am trying to read as fast as possible.
In all honesty, if you have followed any part of this issue nothing revealed in either medium (thus far in the book) is seen as “BREAKING NEWS” rather an illustration of what has been happening with the research arm and policy makers of the National Football League, with regards to concussions.
In what I have been able to read thus far both Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada have done a good job of telling the hidden secret. The Fainau’s went as deep as they possibly could without the help of the league itself, even as far as getting one of the original researchers to recount some of the possible misgivings in the past.
By utilizing the real stories of players that met an early demise (Mike Webster most notably) the information has an emotional connection with the reader. While reading this you understand why this information may have been so valuable to the families and friends of those that could have been effected by repeated head trauma.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to tell you that repetitive brain trauma is bad for you, but the problem here is that some research and information sponsored by the governing body of the professional sport denied there was a link – while at the same time admitting behind closed doors there may be a link or worse a growing problem. Through the Commissioner change of Paul Tagliabue to Roger Goodell there was a quick statement from the league recognizing the link;
“It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems,” the league spokesman Greg Aiello said in a telephone interview.
However, this statement from Aiello was quickly washed in with the minutia of this current concussion crisis and varying research produced by the league itself. In an excerpt from an ESPN story (can’t release any of what is not already published) this complex dance of getting the proper research can be seen;
At one point, according to Lovell, Barr was asked about the missing data: Did the NFL have them or not?
“Yes,” Barr replied, according to Lovell.
Barr said he did provide data to Lovell, but only up to 2000 — four years before the paper was published. After that, he said, he was never asked for the information. As a result, the league had only part of his data. He said Lovell and Pellman never set up an organized system to collect all the data that were being compiled by the individual teams. But when the NFL wrote up the study, it implied that the data were comprehensive.
The room debated the ethical questions surrounding the controversial study before deciding that Lovell hadn’t done anything wrong. “It came down in favor of Mark,” said Cantu, who was still uncomfortable with what had just unfolded. “The net effect was that he got exonerated in the open forum. But there was enough said before that it just was awkward, to say the least.” Barr agreed that the consensus was that Lovell “didn’t do anything intentional to not put data in there, but I don’t think anybody concluded he did a great job on that research.”
As the session broke up, Barr left the stage and made a beeline for the bathroom. “I had to take a wicked pee,” he said. As he walked out of the amphitheater, neuropsychologist Micky Collins, Lovell’s protege and business partner at ImPACT, followed him outside, fuming.
Collins chased down Barr before he could make it to the men’s room. “What are you doing!” Collins screamed, according to Barr. “You’re ruining everything! You’re an idiot! Everybody hates you!”
“He got his nose right up in my face, like managers in baseball when they get in the face of the umpire and they want everybody to know they’re arguing,” Barr said. “I’d never had anything like that before — where somebody is just right in my face.”
“Calm down, man,” Barr said he told Collins. “Micky, I feel like you’re going to hit me or something.”
Barr looked down the hallway. Television cameras were hovering nearby. Collins began to calm down, he said.
“You don’t understand what we’re trying to do,” Collins told him. “We’re trying to do good.”
“Micky, I don’t believe in the science you’re doing,” said Barr. Collins suggested that he come to Pittsburgh to see how he and Lovell worked [at ImPACT].
“Micky, you’re talking to me like you’re trying to convert me in a religion,” Barr said.
“You know what? It is kind of a religion,” said Collins, according to Barr.
Collins acknowledged that he had confronted Barr but said he never raised his voice. He said he was upset about Barr’s shabby treatment of Lovell.
“Bill, Mark Lovell is the most ethical human being I’ve ever met,” Collins said he told Barr. “For you to attack him is wrong. You look like a buffoon.”
Collins said he never compared ImPACT to a religion. “I would never use that language. That makes it sound like a cult; it’s creepy.” He said he merely told Barr that people gravitated to ImPACT “because it works.”
This part excerpt is key for many reasons, it highlights the possible selection of data or simply not caring enough about the missing data to make sound conclusions. Mark Lovell along with Micky Collins were/are major figures within ImPACT – this part of the book and excerpt not withstanding they have done good work in their careers, however this information which the Fainaru’s obtained brings a whole different light on what was transpiring behind the scenes. Granted this interaction between Barr and Collins is a he-said-he-said situation the net effect is that information was missing to form sound conclusions; moreover it seems as though those making policy changes and statements about player safety in regard to concussions was selectively choosing which data it was going to use. FWIW, the idea of having baselines and a test that can objectively measure concussion recovery is “doing good” and Collins was reported as saying. However at what cost and what lengths are people willing to go?
I can imagine the book was given a tidy little bow to finish upon (still getting there), when the NFL settlement was reached just prior to the season beginning. Or, perhaps the book completely underscores why the settlement had to happen from the leagues perspective. As one prominent attorney told me – paraphrasing – “could you imagine what would be found if there was actual discovery in this case?”
For those that want to know why some are deeply concerned with the health of the professional players and to an extent why this information needs to trickle down to the lower levels this book is one you need to put on your reading list. The Brothers Fainaru did tremendous work!