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NFL Admits Players Are At Increased Risk Of Brain Injury


A lot of people have remarked, this has been a very bad week for the NFL, and it's not just about domestic violence. After years of denial, the league now says that NFL players are more likely to suffer chronic brain injury than the general public. According to documents released by the NFL as part of settlement negotiations with retired players, nearly a third of retired players will develop long-term cognitive problems. Steve Fainaru and his brother Mark Fainaru-Wada wrote the 2013 book "League Of Denial," which detailed the NFL systematic denial of the risks their players face for traumatic brain injuries. Steve Fainaru joins me now. Steve, welcome to the program.

STEVE FAINARU: Thanks, Arun. Thanks for having me.

RATH: So what was the biggest news for you here - the findings or the fact that they're coming from the NFL?

FAINARU: Well, I think both. You know, the NFL set up its own research arm to study the issue of concussions and brain damage among NFL players and concluded in paper after scientific paper that their players were essentially impervious to brain damage, unlike boxers and other athletes. But now what they're doing is they're acknowledging in a federal court that, in fact, their players get brain damage at a much higher rate than the general population.

And I think the second part of it was just what those numbers said. For example, players who are in their 50s are experiencing rates of Alzheimer's disease and dementia at something on the order of 13 to 23 times higher than the general population. And that's pretty extraordinary and, I think, frightening to a lot of people.

RATH: Now, this was released in the context of a proposed settlement from a class-action lawsuit involving former players and their families that had accused the NFL of hiding the links between the concussion and brain injury. What is this going to mean for that settlement?

FAINARU: I do think that it's an interesting question because there's going to be continuing litigation when this is all over, if, in fact, the settlement is approved. Already Junior Seau, former linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, who committed suicide in 2012 - his family has already announced publicly that they intend to opt out of the settlement and not participate, even if it does go through. So this information, I think, potentially could be used in future litigation.

RATH: Is there anything that you found in your investigation that the NFL continues to deny?

FAINARU: The Commissioner of the NFL Roger Goodell, when he's been asked about this, has continued to essentially downplay the connection between football and brain damage. He - when he's asked about it, he says, we want to let the medical experts decide. I think that the issue is that peoples are aware of it now. I don't really expect we're still going to see players dropping out of the NFL or even players necessarily choosing to give up football, although I do think that that is happening a lot at the youth level. My brother and I wrote a story several months ago for ESPN that showed that participation in Pop Warner at the youth level has dropped something like 10 percent over the last three years.

But at the NFL level, I think that what it really means is we're going to see the NFL continuing to try to bring more safety to the game, while, at the same time, continuing to market a game that is inherently violent and brutal. They've been trying to walk that line, now, for a period of years. And it's an obviously difficult one because they're inherently contradictory.

RATH: Steve Fainaru is a senior writer at ESPN and co-author of the book "League Of Denial." Steve, thanks so much.

FAINARU: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.