ESPN’s Fainaru brothers talk investigative journalism, NFL and “League of Denial”


Photo by Robert Rigo

By Marc Jean-Louis

Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN investigative correspondents and co-authors of the book “League of Denial,” were hosted at UMass on Thursday, Feb. 20 to discuss their book, investigative journalism and their work in exposing the concussion crisis within the NFL.

“League of Denial” discusses the concussion crisis in the NFL and focuses on how the league went about keeping the science and relevant information from its players. The book was published in Oct. 2013 and later became a PBS Frontline documentary. The two authors spoke about their reporting process and offered an inside look at covering a topic as big as the multi-billion dollar corporation that is the NFL.

Fainaru-Wada said the idea for the book came three years ago while working on a story about former Minnesota Vikings linebacker, Fred McNeill. McNeill suffers from early onset dementia and filed for workman’s compensation against the Vikings in 2011.

“He [Dr. Julian Bales] said ‘No, I don’t think anybody has wrote a book’,” said Fainaru-Wada. “Steve and I have always talked about working on a project together. He immediately jumped on this idea and that led to us putting together a book proposal.”

Steve Fainaru then went on to discuss how the documentary came about.

“My former editor now working at Frontline immediately saw it as a documentary,” said Fainaru. “Ultimately, it became a project for ESPN as well.”

ESPN initially partnered with the brothers for the production of the documentary. ESPN pays a rough $2 billion a year to the NFL in exchange for broadcasting rights to Monday Night Football. They ultimately pulled their support from the documentary with a month left to go in the project.

“I think Steve and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what that meant and what the implications were,” said Fainaru-Wada. “It was highly disappointing to say the least.”

Despite the setback, ESPN still decided to cover the book as a news story and excerpted the book on its website. The documentary was also later aired in two-parts on ESPN.

Following the discussion, a question and answer segment was opened up for the students. When asked what lessons the brothers learned from the project, they talked of how they dealt with sources that were hesitant or unwilling to discuss a topic of such a sensitive nature. They advised students to be transparent, open and relentless with sources who are at first unwilling to talk.

After the conclusion of the discussion, students responded positively to the answers they were given by the Fainaru brothers in regards to their questions about the process of pursuing the story. When asked whether they had any new opinions about the NFL’s concussion crisis, some of the students’ thoughts remained unchanged about the issue.

“I’ve always had a pretty strong opinion about it no matter what,” said communications and journalism major Chris Doherty. “I’ve always thought the NFL was a dangerous game [and] it’s going to be hard for them to minimize the risk while playing.”

Since the publication of “League of Denial,” the NFL has taken some preventative measures in reducing the amount of concussions that occur during games, a stricter stance on head-to-head collisions being one of the most popular. The NFL also agreed to pay $765 million in a 2013 settlement with more than 4,000 retired players over head injuries.

In spite of recent moves by the NFL, Doherty remains unconvinced that these steps will change the prevalence of head injuries in professional football.

“I’m still skeptical that they’re even going to fix the problem,” said Doherty. “They are a lot like the big tobacco companies with the linkage to cancer and smoking. And I think it’s déjà vu all over again. I think it hurts them that they didn’t talk for the story.”

The Fainaru brothers stated multiple times that the NFL refused to work with them at any point during their work on “League of Denial.”

There has recently been a wave of exposure to concussions in professional sports. Former NHL players currently have a civil action lawsuit filed against the NHL that claims the league did not do enough to address the health implications of head injuries in league games. The MLB has also just revised their rule on home-plate collisions.

The Fainaru brothers were ahead of their time in pointing out the grave health implications of concussions in professional sports and “League of Denial” will be looked at as a piece of groundbreaking investigative journalism for years to come.

Marc Jean-Louis can be reached at [email protected]

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