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"League of Denial" details systematic effort by NFL

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ESPN and Sports Illustrated — yes, both — posted excerpts of the forthcoming book "League of Denial" today.

The book, by the investigative team of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru (they're brothers), goes on sale Oct. 8.

But this much is already clear: it paints a scathing picture of the NFL as a league that used its power and money to lie about the devastating impact of football on its participants.

Let's just jump into it.

When a small group of researchers finally began looking at the sport, they found the cumulative effect of common plays — not necessarily concussions caused by big hits — most troublesome:

"No, what the researchers were saying was that the essence of football — the unavoidable head banging that occurs on every play, like a woodpecker jackhammering at a tree — can unleash a cascading series of neurological events that in the end strangles your brain, leaving you unrecognizable."

Instead of becoming a force for change, that research was quickly swept aside as the NFL worked to pay for and spread its own research.

"The NFL's strategy seemed not unlike that of another powerful industry, the tobacco industry, which had responded to its own existential threat by underwriting questionable science through the creation of its own scientific research council and trying to silence anyone who contradicted it."

But maligned commissioner Roger Goodell is not to blame. According to the authors, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue put together the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, "a research body that insisted repeatedly — in scientific papers and public statements — that NFL players were impervious to brain damage."

The ESPN excerpt goes on to provide detail of a contentious summit called to discuss the divide between independent and NFL-sponsored research.

The SI excerpt goes back further, to Tagliabue's early denials of a concussion problem, in 1994.

"Tagliabue dismissed the matter as a 'pack journalism issue' and claimed that the NFL experienced "one concussion every three or four games," which he said came out to 2.5 concussions for every "22,000 players engaged."

The moderator of the panel discussion that day happened to be David Halberstam, the former Vietnam war correspondent.

"For Halberstam, it was a moment of déjà vu. He seemed to be taken back to the days of the Five O'Clock Follies, the name the Saigon press corps bestowed upon the surreal, statistics-crammed U.S. government press briefings. Halberstam compared the NFL commissioner with the U.S. defense secretary of the 1960s. "I feel I'm back in Vietnam hearing [Robert] McNamara give statistics," he told the audience, which howled."

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