Journalism in the Public Interest

Muckreads Podcast: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis


Starting Quarterback Trent Edwards of the Buffalo Bills suffers a concussion after getting hit by Strong Safety Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of their NFL Game on Oct. 5, 2008, at Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada faced formidable challenges when they investigated the National Football League’s denial of the brain injuries suffered by its players. Foremost among them: ESPN has a $15.2 billion dollar contract to broadcast NFL games, so they were investigating one of their own network’s biggest products. Furthermore, the League refused to cooperate with the story and pressured the network to soften its reports. “Every step of the way we got pushback from the NFL,” Steve Fainaru told ProPublica. “They fought almost every story we did.“

The reporting by the Fainaru brothers resulted in “League of Denial,” a book and documentary of the same name by the PBS public affairs program Frontline. The journalists revealed that the NFL spent decades undermining researchers who found links between football and brain injuries, and created their own research arm that downplayed the risks of playing football – even as its retirement fund was paying for brain injuries suffered by players. Behind the scenes, the NFL attacked the project “with a vengeance,” Steve Fainaru said. “They went to our editors, and they went to our editors’ editors. They basically tried to say (the reporting) was wrong without really providing any information.”

The brothers sat down with ProPublica health reporter Marshall Allen on the release date for the book and the documentary, Oct. 8, for ProPublica’s #muckreads podcast. They shared the inside story of how they got the story and the challenges it presented, including the conflict of interest of producing investigative reports that could undermine the profits of their employer and its biggest business partner, the NFL.

Weeks before the documentary aired, ESPN suddenly pulled out of the Frontline partnership, reportedly due to pressure from the NFL. Mark Fainaru-Wada said the breakdown was disappointing, but that ESPN never backed down from their journalism. The brothers are still credited as ESPN reporters in the film. The film uses footage created for ESPN, and the network as promoted their work. “The book and the film are creatures of ESPN – we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the full support of ESPN,” Fainaru-Wada said. “And the one saving grace that Steve and I continue to talk about is that the journalism hasn’t changed a bit. It’s exactly as it was when we went into it.”

To put it in the vernacular, some of this boils down to, money talks and you know what walks. Sorry to be so blunt, but life is like that anyway, not just here.
With all the money generated by the supposed ‘sport’ if you think they (the NFL) aren’t gonna cover their financial ass, or ‘product’, then you livin’ in an alternate universe. Why in the hell would they have stonewalled these guys. FYI - it ain’t a sport any more, it’s a business.
It’s the game of responsibility tag of being found out basically that big boys (literally) in essence violently pounding the hell out of each other gotta pay the price for it. I’m not sayin’ that to put them in a negative light. To me you don’t haveta be Einsten to figure out that the more times you ‘get your bell rung’ there’s a REAL good chance somethin’ is gonna go haywire in the gray matter long after you get that done to you.
I played it in HS and even tried to make a go of the sport on a club years ago but was too small even back then. So I ain’t talkin’ out me arse about it.
Just like the slimy things the Koch brothers in their best (?) interest in the political arena, the NFL does in their bailywick.
For that, both of ‘em should be hung by whatever appendage or orifice is available because they’re just tryin’ to cover their asses so they don’t have to pay money for consequences they’re directly involved in. There are consequences of actions and to not take realistic responsibility by either of these entities shows me that the only thing that qualifies them as human is that you walk upright.
Now that the horse is outta the barn, the players need go into the deal just playin’ the game with their eyes open to what could happen to them. Maybe some sort of waiver could be developed or a written agreement of shared responibility could be had as to the financials of the possible future problems. Either that or modify the rules extensively so that sort of beating doesn’t happen to the head as much. Which is happening as I write this, but I doubt i will be able to significantly reduce the injury problem.
Or, just scrap the whole thing because of the danger. Which think has got an .00000000000001 % chance of happening because we like the Romans need ritual sacrafices to keep the masses in check from tearin’ each other o the rich apart because of the ‘1%’ are screwin’ us royally, which perpetuates the whole context of the age we live in.
There’s also too much money for the players to disregard the possible future problems,so things will somewhat go on as they have with problems for some of the players, the masses will be satiated at least for the moment and the ritch bitches will be able to, as usual, to live the high life they’ve become accustomed to, flaunt their status to the peons, manipulate the political localities into special favors so they can abuse the system and exort more out of it in ‘special considerations’, and the minority, the players (those that will be affected) will bear the burden of it.
Oh well, it’s SSDD when it comes to significant change being needed by either not coming, or it coming too slow to be effective.

Charles Swanson

Oct. 11, 2013, 7:27 p.m.

What bothers me the most is the FACT that the NFL cares not one whit anything that happens with NFL players, and especially who get seriously hurt.

The day will come when the leaders of the NFL, past and present LIED about what they knew and what they told the public.

robert von bargen

Oct. 12, 2013, 12:27 p.m.

I posted the Frontline link on FB in the hopes that some of my friends there who have kids playing football would re-think their enthusiasm for it.  Good luck with that.  So far, I’ve had zero comments or “likes.”  One mother had previously bragged about how hard a hitter her 15 y/o JV linebacker son was and casually mentioned a comment about a helmet to helmet hit he had made in the previous week’s game.  She assured me that her son would always tell her if he had any symptoms.  I doubt that.
As an attorney for the hospital where he died, I was involved in the case of a HS football player who hid his symptoms from everyone after a ferocious hit - until he had another one that killed him.  The company that made the helmet and the school district settled.  That company (Bike) got out of the helmet business.

Terry Oglesby

Oct. 15, 2013, 9:40 a.m.

I watched the Frontline presentation of NFL players who have and those who are now suffering from the lasting if not fatal consequences of concussion injuries from playing the game.  I believe that CTE is real.  Parents need to sit up an pay attention to the sporting events their children are participating in and understand what some of the consequences may be.  Perhaps high schools now need to look closely at whether or not to contiinue participation in football.  I for one believe that football is indeed hazardous to ones health.

By the way, not only is this a business but it’s a nonprofit (501(c)(6)) business that uses its players.  Think about that when you see people (or yourself) rooting for what’s essentially a brand name.

Granted, I don’t have the emotional attachment to professional sports.  I know some do, and they need to weigh these conclusions against their family traditions and desire for entertainment.  I’m going to guess the same is true of most of the professional leagues, rather than being limited to football.

But here’s the sixty-four billion dollar question that fans and the NFL itself need to start thinking about:  What happens if parents stop letting their kids play football?  I mean, this should scare the heck out of every parent of an athlete out there.  When high school teams don’t have stars, college recruiters at the big schools have nobody to recruit.  When college teams have no stars, you don’t have anybody to recruit for the NFL.  How long can the organization survive with the players it has…?

For the long-term survival of the sport and the organization, they might need to be willing to lose some significant amount of their profit.  Whether they’re willing or even able to do such a thing, though, is anybody’s guess.

But, then, maybe there’s another angle:  Who can we contact to kill their nonprofit status?  If they’re going to kill their employees, the least we can do is stop subsidizing it.


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