A Closer Look at the ‘Denial’ of Brain Damage in the NFL

By Bill Hanna


I have been a professional football fan for as long as I can remember, and although I proudly confess to being a Green Bay Packers backer, I also always have cheered for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because my dad grew up in Pittsburgh, he bled black and gold and stood by this team through many lean seasons. Finally Chuck Noll arrived on the scene, and my dad saw his beloved Steelers transformed from an NFL doormat into a dynasty in the 1970s.

Of course you cannot think of those great teams without mentioning the names of Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth, Harris, Bleier, Ham, Greene, Holmes, and many others, but for me one image from those years is indelibly imprinted in my memory. On those dark, gray winter days when the swirling winds turned Three Rivers Stadium into one of the most frigid places on earth, a single player on the field always stood out because he eschewed long sleeves, and when he bent over to snap the ball into Bradshaw’s hands, Mike Webster’s massive bare biceps were on display as a reminder that cold weather didn’t exist for him.


From 1974 to 1988 Webster anchored the offensive line at center for the Steelers, and among his many achievements are four Super Bowl rings, nine pro bowl appearances, nine all-pro selections, and a well-deserved place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sadly, Webster, aka Iron Mike, died on Sept. 24, 2002, at the age of only 50, and in what can only be described as cruel irony, Webster’s life after football was destroyed by the sport he loved and to which he devoted his life.

The dear price Webster paid for playing 16 years in the NFL is revealed in the first part of “League of Denial,” a fascinating, shocking, and frightening book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru about the horrific danger to players who suffer repeated concussions playing professional football. Both authors are investigative reporters for ESPN, and their meticulously researched book chronicles the irrefutable research leading to the conclusion that an alarming number of former professional football players are at risk of developing (or already have contracted) chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) later their lives.

“League of Denial” comprises three main sections in making its case that despite claims to the contrary by the NFL the development of CTE in former players during their later years is an escalating problem. The first section focuses on Webster’s tragic history en route to his untimely death in 2002, and the subsequent autopsy Dr. Bennet I. Omalu, chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County in Lodi, Calif., performed on him. Although Webster’s immediate cause of death was listed as a heart attack, Omalu noted on the death certificate that Webster had suffered from depression and ordered his brain preserved for additional testing that ultimately revealed Webster had CTE.

Among the symptoms of CTE are depression, suicidal impulses, anxiety, memory loss, and erratic and often aggressive behavior. Although Webster had always been the picture of strength and stability, it was during his final NFL season with the Kansas City Chiefs that he began to develop some worrisome behavior patterns. He had built a beautiful dream retirement house in Kansas City for his wife, Pam, and their children, and in “League of Denial” the authors described the beginning of the end this way.

“At first, that was exactly what it looked like: A beautiful dream. Pam loved Kansas City. So did the kids. But they began to notice changes in Mike, almost imperceptible at first but growing more noticeable during his final years in Pittsburgh and Kansas City and now impossible to ignore. Before, Michael rarely raised his voice; now his temper was short. He became easily distracted and forgetful. He was often lethargic and indecisive. Where Webster once had approached his work with unrelenting focus, now ‘he couldn’t decide what to have for breakfast,’ Pam said.”

Instead of living a dream during his retirement years, Webster found himself in the midst of a nightmare. Take a moment to picture that gold-and-black clad 270-pound warrior (capable of bench-pressing 350 pounds 15 times) as he broke from the Steelers’ huddle, sprinted to the line of scrimmage, and, with bare biceps bulging as the wind chill in Three Rivers plummeted, bent over to deliver the ball into the hands of Bradshaw. Now read the following statement from Webster’s son Garrett to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during a hearing titled “Oversight of the NFL Retirement System” about why his father failed even to call his son on his 10th birthday.

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“‘Later that month I found out why,’ Garrett told the rapt committee members, ‘when our family discovered iron Mike Webster, bloated to over 300 pounds, shivering naked in the bed in a rat infested motel, and by his side were not pictures of his kids, nor his Super Bowl rings, nor autographs or any glory that you associate with football, but a bucket of human waste, because he was too weak to make it to the bathroom.’”

As Webster’s health declined and his family’s requests for monetary compensation from the NFL continued to fall on deaf ears, his situation appeared hopeless because no one seemed willing to challenge the all-powerful NFL. Enter Bob Fitzsimmons, a local personal injury attorney, who agreed to take the case and obtained total disability benefits and ultimately won an award of $1.8 million for the Webster family after Mike’s death. And as you’ll see when you read the book, Fitzsimmons continued to play a vital part in the battle brain-damaged players were waging against the NFL.

Although Webster’s case serves as unifying device throughout the book, the authors also include information about how CTE has touched such players as Troy Aikman, Dave Duerson, Merril Hoge, Terry Long, John Mackey, Tom McHale, Gary Plummer, Junior Seau, Steve Young, and others. But despite the increasing evidence of CTE in former players, the NFL has stubbornly, steadfastly, and perhaps desperately clung to its mantra: Football players don’t get brain damage.

In one study the NFL conducted during a six-year period, the conclusion was that “…no NFL player experienced … cumulative chronic encephalopathy (brain damage) from repeat concussions.” But the authors are quick to point out the obvious flaw in the study,

“The NFL hadn’t actually studied retired players, but that didn’t stop the league’s experts from concluding that none had sustained long-term brain damage. Pellman (NFL doctor Elliott Pellman) and his colleagues would repeat this statement, in some form, over and over and over.”

“League of Denial” certainly is a timely book because it seems as if every day another former player steps forward to discuss CTE. Most recently interviews with Tony Dorsett and Brett Favre have proved to be very revealing, and one wonders just how long the NFL can continue to deny how big the problem has become.

At one point the authors say when the NFL began keeping track of concussions in 1989, it released information stating that the rate of concussions was one in every three or four games, but Dr. Joseph Maroon conducted is own study and concluded that two to four concussions occur in every NFL game.

Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru obviously did their homework before writing this book because the list of players, doctors, and experts they interviewed is beyond impressive. Although I found some of the technical points and explanations a bit tedious, for the most part the book was quite readable and interesting. It also was the basis for a TV documentary that you can find on the PBS Web site in case you missed it.

Despite various rule changes and equipment updates to offer players increased protection, the CTE problem is not going away, and as the authors point out, the NFL is paying dearly.

“As this book was being written, nearly 6000 retired players and their families were suing the league and Riddell for negligence and fraud. Their argument was that the NFL had ‘propagated its own industry-funded and falsified research’ to conceal the link between football and brain damage. One week before the start of the 2013 season, the NFL settled the case — agreeing to pay the players $765 million, plus an expected $200 million in legal fees. The NFL did not admit wrongdoing, but the settlement hardly resolved the question at the core of the league’s concussion crisis: How dangerous is football to one’s brain?”

Reading “League of Denial” will really make you stop and consider what the future has in store for professional football or football in general for that matter. At one point in the book, the authors quote Maroon as saying, “If only 10 percent of the mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, then that’s the end of football.”

Perhaps in granting such a massive award to those 6,000 retired players and their families, the NFL has finally realized that football players do get brain damage. After all, the proof is undeniable.