It has been the dominant off-field story involving the NFL for several years now (Deflategate notwithstanding) and two of the reporters at the forefront of concussion and CTE reporting over that period have been Outside the Lines’ brother combination of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. (In fact, many ESPN reporters, led by ESPN The Magazine’s Peter Keating, have long been on the trail of various angles of the concussion issue.)
“The Brothers,” as they’re known around the ESPN newsroom, were again at the fore of concussion-related reporting this week with Monday’s story depicting findings in a congressional report that “at least a half-dozen top NFL health officials waged an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign. . . to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease.”
It was the latest in a series of OTL reports from The Brothers – who co-authored 2013’s revealing “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth” – that has raised questions about the long term effects of playing football.
“In the fall of 2011, I was assigned, with producer Michael Sciallo, to do a piece on Fred McNeill, a former Minnesota Vikings linebacker who had developed early-onset dementia. McNeill was one of the first players to sue over the link between football and brain damage,” Mark said. “It was so striking to see McNeill, a former lawyer who clearly had been a vibrant and intelligent person, at a point where his short-term memory was so shot that he was unable to manage his day-to-day life without the help of his family.
While reporting on that story, Mark interviewed neurosurgeon Julian E. Bailes, “who sparked the idea for us to write a book about the subject.” The inspiration coincided with Steve’s arrival at ESPN and resulted in “League of Denial” in addition to several co-bylined stories for ESPN.
Admittedly, with such a nuanced topic, not all of the Brothers’ coverage has the palpable impact that Monday’s story and subsequent response from the NFL had.
“We hadn’t been sure what to expect, in part because the reaction to our previous stories on the NFL’s attempts to pressure the NIH had been somewhat muted,” Steve said. “It speaks to the power of Congress and the scathing nature of the report. The investigators state unequivocally that the NFL improperly tried to influence our largest biomedical research institution and provide specific documentation to back that up. That’s pretty hard to ignore.”
– Mark Fainaru-Wada
Also hard to ignore: the investigative duo’s overall influence over consistently moving the story forward. However, as Steve says, they have not been alone in their dogged reporting.
“The NFL concussion saga precedes us by many years,” Steve said. “First Greg Garber, Craig Lazarus and Christine Caddick at ESPN and Michael Farber at Sports Illustrated owned it. Then Peter Keating with ESPN and Alan Schwarz with The New York Times owned it.
“If we have any frustration it’s that there isn’t more competing coverage,” he said, “given the enormous amount of money (well over $100 million) that the NFL is pouring into brain research, and the impact that research will have on both the future of football and the decisions of millions of Americans who are trying to sort fact from fiction on this issue.”
Even with competition, Mark and Steve have a distinct advantage. “It certainly helps that there are two of us, so that if one is a bit more tied up with another story, the other can keep pressing the NFL/CTE story,” Mark said.
“Plus, we benefit from having two fantastic bosses/editors in [Senior Coordinating Producer/Enterprise Reporting Unit] Dwayne Bray and [Deputy Editor] Chris Buckle,” he said. “Both not only get the story and are invested in pushing it, but they also ensure we have the time and resources to keep up the chase. It’s quite liberating to work in that kind of environment.”
The feeling, needless to say, is mutual.
“For four years, the Brothers’ coverage of the science into football and brain disease has been unparalleled,” Bray said. “I believe this is the biggest and most-important issue in sports today and that’s why we’ve had two of our best assigned to this story. It’s a bonus that they are also siblings.”