Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru photographed at Fainaru's home in Berkeley, Calif. The brothers are co-authors of "League of Denial," which examines the concussion problem in the NFL and the league's denial of the problem. (Lisa Wiseman, Chicago Tribune)

While the National Football League remains the most successful sports entity in America, its foundations are being shaken by a looming health crisis. For more than two decades, evidence has been mounting that concussions associated with playing football can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a mental illness whose symptoms range from memory loss and mood changes to severe depression and suicidal tendencies.

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About 50 NFL players whose brains have been studied postmortem have been diagnosed with the disease, including gridiron stars Mike Webster and Junior Seau, who fatally shot himself in 2012. But the NFL continues to deny a definitive connection between football and CTE, despite paying $765 million this year to settle a lawsuit filed by about 6,000 retired players and their families.

In "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth," Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of the best-selling "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports," and his brother Steve Fainaru, a former Pulitzer Prize winner for the Washington Post, tell the story of the NFL's extended campaign to suppress efforts to prove the connection between the sport and mental illness. Printers Row Journal caught up with the brothers, both of whom now work for ESPN's investigative news unit, for a conference call from their home base in the San Francisco area. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.

Q: I'll start with a small, easy question: Should football be banned?

Fainaru: (Laughs.) We think definitively no. We're both huge fans of the game. I played in high school, and we're both big San Francisco 49ers fans. I have season tickets.

We never set out to be the guys who led the charge to kill football. But at the same time, these are real issues that are facing not only the NFL but anybody involved in the game, which includes kids and their parents, as well as fans who are trying to figure out how they should look at a game that can cause so much destruction to people's lives. In the book, we just wanted to lay out how we got to this point.

Q: The book's title, though, seems to send a pretty clear message about your point of view. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting it.

Fainaru-Wada: You're misinterpreting the title of the book if you think it's about killing football. The book documents pretty extensively two decades worth of denial by the league to basically bury the concussion issue as anything serious for the sport. But to go from that to suggest the sport should be banned, that's a leap that I don't think the title implies or that we meant.

Q: Of course, there are different kinds of denial. Do you think the NFL really believes the statement it made — that football isn't causing this brain disease — or are they disingenuously denying the connection even though they know it's real?

Fainaru: Mark and I have scrupulously avoided trying to infer from the NFL's actions the answer to that question. I do think there were people in the NFL who sincerely were not convinced that the mountain of evidence that had been accumulated by some of the most reputable scientists in the country was enough for them to link football and brain damage. But then, for a period of nearly 20 years, they set out to stifle any research that ran contrary to their own conclusions. They tried to bury it, they tried to get papers retracted, they used their power with the media to attack independent scientists who were producing the research.

The cumulative effect was this incredible institutional denial that was waged at the highest levels of the NFL. Whether they did that because they were disingenuous and trying to cover up the science, or whether they simply didn't believe it, I don't think we go there.

Q: In the book you address the fact that you both work for ESPN, which is one of the leading broadcasters of the NFL. What sense does it make for you guys to be looking into this, when your employer is making a lot of money from televising football games?

Fainaru-Wada: Well, we work in a unit at ESPN that's driven by doing investigative reporting. I think it would be hard to find any investigative unit in the country—and not just in sports journalism—bigger than ESPN's. Throughout the process of reporting the book, we were also feeding stories from that research to ESPN, which was running them on TV and on its website. If we thought there was going to be any interference, that would be a problem, and we probably wouldn't be working there. But the opposite has been true. We couldn't have done the book, frankly, without the support of ESPN, which gave us the time to work on it.

Q: The NFL is one of the biggest things going in American sports and American popular culture, so you guys are scaling Mount Everest, in a way. Is the NFL unassailable?

Fainaru: I don't feel that way. I think it's been proven over and over in journalism that institutions that seemed to be completely impervious to this kind of thing are in fact as susceptible and potentially vulnerable to scrutiny as anybody else. That ranges from the president of the United States and government agencies to the biggest corporations.

People do love their football, but I can't tell you how many people have said after reading the book, "I'm never going to watch football in the same way again." I didn't expect that, but I can understand it, because you're basically forced to reconcile the fact that you're getting entertainment from a sport that now has been shown, with a pretty high degree of certainty, that it can destroy the very identity of a pretty large number of the players you're watching. Where all this is going, I think, is going to be led by the science. Right now, the number of players affected by this is small enough —

Q: That we know about —

Fainaru: — that we know about, exactly — that we're able to keep it at bay in our consciousness, that we sort of suspend it. We suspend it as we watch, and enjoy it. But at the same time, if we're 10 or 20 years down the road and we're talking about hundreds of players who are affected by this disease — or even more than that, as some people suspect — it's going to cause a seismic shift in the way people view the game.

Q: Someone says in the book that if 10 percent of the mothers in America begin to worry about this, football is doomed. Could there be this grassroots, ground-up effect on football's future?