Read League of Denial Online

Authors: Mark Fainaru-Wada

League of Denial

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

Crown Archetype with colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available upon request.

ISBN 978-0-7704-3754-1
eISBN: 978-0-7704-3755-8

Jacket design: Michael Nagin
Jacket photograph: Nick Veasey/Getty Images


To the three remarkable women in our lives—



and our mother, Ellen Gilbert


This book benefited greatly from the work of people who joined us at different stages of the research. Sabrina Shankman, a reporter for
, the PBS investigative news program, spent nearly a year on the project, conducting numerous interviews and gathering information on everything from the biomechanics of helmet testing to the NFL’s courtship of mommy bloggers. She is a tireless, smart, and resourceful reporter and a wonderful colleague. Her work can be found throughout the book. Kevin Fixler, a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a freelance sportswriter based in Denver, and Maureen Fan, the former Beijing correspondent for the
Washington Post
, also contributed essential research. We were fortunate to have such outstanding collaborators, each of whom strengthened the book in ways that are visible and others that are not.


   Paul J. Tagliabue,
Commissioner, 1989–2006

   Roger S. Goodell,
Commissioner, 2006–

   Jeff Pash,
Executive Vice President and General Counsel

   Greg Aiello,
Director of Communications


   Elliot J. Pellman, M.D.,
Chairperson, 1994–2007

   Ira R. Casson, M.D.,
Cochairman, 2007–2009

   David C. Viano, Ph.D.,
Cochairman, 2007–2009

   Henry Feuer, M.D.

   Mark R. Lovell, Ph.D.

   Joseph F. Waeckerle, M.D.

   Joseph C. Maroon, M.D.


   Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Ph.D., ATC,
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

   Robert C. Cantu, M.D.,
Emerson Hospital, Concord, Massachusetts

   Julian E. Bailes Jr., M.D.,
NorthShore Neurological Institute, Evanston, Illinois

   William B. Barr, Ph.D.,
New York University Medical Center, New York, New York

   Leigh Steinberg,
Sports Agent, Newport Beach, California


   Bennet I. Omalu, M.D.,
Chief Medical Examiner, San Joaquin County, Lodi, California

   Julian E. Bailes Jr., M.D.,
NorthShore Neurological Institute, Evanston, Illinois

   Robert P. Fitzsimmons,
Attorney, Wheeling, West Virginia

   Garrett Webster,
son of Mike Webster, Moon Township, Pennsylvania


   Christopher Nowinski,
Sports Legacy Institute, Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston, Massachusetts

   Ann C. McKee, M.D.,
Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital

   Robert C. Cantu, M.D.,
Emerson Hospital, Concord, Massachusetts

   Robert A. Stern, Ph.D.,
Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts


   Troy Aikman,
Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys, 1989–2000

   Harry Carson,
Linebacker, New York Giants, 1976–1988

   Dave Duerson (deceased),
Defensive Back, Chicago Bears, 1983–1989; New York Giants, 1990; Phoenix Cardinals, 1991–1993

   John Grimsley (deceased),
Linebacker, Houston Oilers, 1984–1990; Miami Dolphins, 1992–1993

   Merril Hoge,
Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987–1993; Chicago Bears, 1994

   Ted Johnson,
Linebacker, New England Patriots, 1995–2004

   Terry Long (deceased),
Guard, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1984–1991

   John Mackey (deceased),
Tight End, Baltimore Colts, 1963–1971; San Diego Chargers, 1972

   Tom McHale (deceased),
Guard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987–1992; Philadelphia Eagles, 1993–1994; Miami Dolphins, 1995

   Gary Plummer,
Linebacker, San Diego Chargers, 1986–1993; San Francisco 49ers, 1994–1997

Junior Seau (deceased),
Linebacker, San Diego Chargers, 1990–2002; Miami Dolphins, 2003–2005; New England Patriots, 2006–2009

   Justin Strzelczyk (deceased),
Guard-Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1990–1998

   Al Toon,
Wide Receiver, New York Jets, 1985–1992

   Andre Waters (deceased),
Safety, Philadelphia Eagles, 1984–1993; Arizona Cardinals, 1994–1995

   Mike Webster (deceased),
Center, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974–1988; Kansas City Chiefs, 1989–1990

   Steve Young,
Quarterback, Los Angeles Express (USFL), 1984–1985; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1985–1986; San Francisco 49ers, 1987–1999


Behold the mighty woodpecker.

On average, it weighs about 2 ounces and can generate up to 1,000 g forces while pecking at tree limbs 12,000 times a day. Yet the woodpecker’s brain remains pristine and unscathed, a fact that has intrigued researchers for decades. Nature essentially has turned the woodpecker into a shock absorber from beak to foot. The bird’s uneven bill deflects much of the impact of its incessant head banging. A third interior eyelid prevents its eyeballs from popping out. The woodpecker’s tongue is one of the most unusual features in nature. It extends from the back of the bird’s mouth and through its right nostril, finally wrapping itself snugly around the entire crown of the head. Chinese researchers who subjected the great spotted woodpecker and the Eurasian hoopoe to super-slow-motion replay and CT scans concluded that the tongue serves as a kind of safety belt for the brain.

In the late 2000s, Julian Bailes
displayed a woodpecker skull in a jar on top of his desk in Morgantown, West Virginia. Bailes was a top neurosurgeon and a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He incurred the wrath of the NFL when he joined a small group of researchers who concluded that football was causing brain damage in an alarming number of former players. D
uring a closed-door meeting in 2007 that was attended by the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and
200 team doctors, trainers, and players, a neurologist affiliated with the league had mocked Bailes, rolling his eyes as Bailes showed slides of diseased brain tissue collected from dead players. “I’m a man of science!” the NFL’s neurologist had bellowed, implying that Bailes was not. It was an ugly scene, one of many that took place during those strange years when the National Football League went to war against science.

Every once in a while, someone would ask Bailes about the curious object on his desk. Bailes loved football—he had been an all-state linebacker in Louisiana—and even though the NFL was attacking him, he surrounded himself with artifacts of the sport: a shelf filled with old helmets of the Steelers, Cardinals, Chiefs, and Rams; deflated footballs; a panoramic photo of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, where he once had worked; and a signed photo of the legendary Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, snarling and toothless. “My whole life was football,” Bailes would say. He would pick up the tiny bird brain from his desk and explain that if only NFL players were built like woodpeckers, none of this would have happened.

September 28, 2002, is one of the most significant dates in the history of American sports. You won’t find it in the record books.

That morning, on a stainless steel autopsy table inside the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lay
the body of Mike Webster, the legendary center of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had been stripped to his blue jeans, and his stomach had been injected with embalming fluid. Even in death, Webster looked formidable, with a muscular thickness from head to foot, a body that seemed designed to absorb and mete out punishment. But on closer inspection, it was a body that showed horrific signs of wear. Late in Webster’s life, his personal physician had noticed that the skin on his forehead had become “fixed to his scalp,” a shelf of scar tissue built up over 17 years of pro football. Odd bulges protruded from his back, varicose veins spidered down his legs, and deep cracks ran along the bottoms of his feet. His fingers were thick and crooked like splayed branches. Webster’s ex-wife, peering into his casket, had noticed that his fingers remained curled so that “it looked like he was still holding a football.” Webster was 50 years old when he died, but a lot of people thought he looked 70.

Five years earlier, when Webster was inducted into the
Hall of Fame, his old quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, introduced him as “the best center that’s ever played the game, the best to ever put his hands down on a football.” Bradshaw, bald except for a fringe of blond hair, looking like a TV evangelist in his gold Hall of Fame sport coat, gazed up to the gray skies and cried: “One more time, let me put my hands under Mike Webster’s butt!” Webster, looking sheepish and befuddled, bent over in his khakis and hiked the ball to Bradshaw as the crowd roared. That was in 1997. Webster was already a very sick man. How sick, only a few people knew. Steelers fans had heard some of the stories: that Webster was broke and jobless and living in his truck, that his body was falling apart, that he was seeing a psychiatrist. The reality was far worse: Webster, a kind, thoughtful man during his playing days—many imagined he would go on to a successful career in coaching or perhaps broadcasting, like Bradshaw—had been transformed into a completely different person.

Webster had accumulated
an arsenal of weapons that included a Sig Sauer P226 semiautomatic pistol, an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle, and a .357 Magnum revolver. He talked frequently about killing NFL officials, including Steelers executives and members of the league’s disability board, whom he blamed for his financial troubles. Webster had become
addicted to Ritalin, a stimulant normally prescribed to children with attention-deficit disorder, finding that it was the only thing that got him through the day.

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