Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Q&A with author Steve Fainaru

Steve Fainaru
Steve Fainaru, a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, is the co-author, with his brother, journalist Mark Fainaru-Wada, of a forthcoming book that looks into the connections between football and brain injuries. Fainaru, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter, is also the author of Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq, and the co-author of The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream

Q: In researching your forthcoming book, you and your brother uncovered new information showing that the NFL had given disability payments to players for brain damage, years before it admitted a link between playing football and head trauma. How did you research the issue, and what are the likely repercussions from your discovery?

A: Mark and I wanted to go back and track how the NFL responded to the evolving science about football and brain damage. We discovered that the league paid out over $2 million in disability benefits to players with neuro-cognitive problems while reviewing thousands of pages of medical records related to Mike Webster, who, after he died in 2002, became the first NFL player to be diagnosed with football-related brain damage.

Some people feel this may be a key piece of evidence in the ongoing lawsuit against the NFL. It shows that for years the league maintained two committees -- both dealing with health matters, both overseen by the NFL commissioner -- that espoused completely opposite views on whether football can cause brain damage. The disability committee said yes; the NFL's research arm, known as the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, said no. We did a story on this for ESPN and it's fleshed out in the book. One lawyer called the document showing that the NFL admitted that football caused Webster's brain damage "the proverbial smoking gun."

Q: Why did the two of you decide to collaborate on a book about concussions in football? What has it been like to write a book with your brother, and how do you divide the work?

A: The book was totally Mark's idea. I pretty much glommed onto it, as big brothers do. He had done a story for ESPN on Fred McNeill, a former Minnesota Viking who had filed a worker's compensation claim in California. Mark interviewed a neurosurgeon who was familiar with Game of Shadows, the bestselling book on steroids that Mark wrote with Lance Williams. He knew a lot about the NFL's checkered history on football and concussions, and he suggested Mark might want to look into it as a possible next book.

Mark and I had talked about writing a book together for a while, and this seemed like a natural. More than anything, we loved the story and the characters. The NFL's weird science of denial grew out of that.  

Now that we're almost finished, I have to say it's been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We think we know our siblings pretty well, but I think taking on a task as big and challenging as this with your own brother helps you discover things that you didn't necessarily know.

On one level, you revert to the relationship you had when you were, like, 12 and 9, which can be a little awkward. But I think you also gain new appreciation and perspective on your relationship. My brother is such an unbelievable reporter and such a good person, so funny to be around. It's really been fun hanging out with him so much.

There was never any clear division of the work. Some reporting trips we took together. Others we did separately. Often it just depended on what was going on with our families at the time. We both seemed to naturally gravitate to aspects of the book that interested us individually, and that's how we ended up dividing up the writing.  For the first two sections we alternated chapters. For the last section, we decided that each of us would write consecutive chapters, mostly based on the material each of us knew best. 

We haven't wanted to kill each other more than two or three times in the past year, I'd say.

Q: Your previous book, Big Boy Rules, which was based on your Pulitzer Prize-winning stories for The Washington Post, examined American mercenaries fighting in Iraq during the war. Did your views of the mercenaries change as you spent time with them, and what was your overall sense of their role in the Iraq War?

A: I think my views did change as I spent time with them, which of course is inevitable when you get to know people and begin to understand their lives and motivations. And of course what I found is that the population of mercenaries was as diverse as you'd expect from any group of some 50,000 people, although of course this particular group was fighting a war for money, so it's a pretty extreme profession.

The whole business had its own warped logic and for the most part the people in it conducted themselves professionally. Most had been in the military and had even fought in Iraq, and they had taken the skill set they developed in a relatively low-paying U.S. government job and capitalized on it in the private sector, not unlike bureaucrats and politicians who become lobbyists.

But it's a very ugly business, obviously. The government had outsourced large chunks of the war to an unregulated industry armed to the teeth. So the abuses were legion. Every time I'd go out to investigate a shooting of Iraqi civilians, I'd hear about others. And of course we don't know how many contractors were killed, either. The mercenary part of the war in many ways summed up the war itself for me, so misguided and disingenuous.   

Q: What's the significance of the title "Big Boy Rules"?

A: It was an expression the mercenaries used. I heard it for the first time while investigating a shooting in Baghdad. A former Marine named Jake Washbourne was accused by his colleagues of shooting into an unarmed taxi. Washbourne was fired by the company, along with two mercenaries who made the accusation. But there was never any criminal investigation.

When I asked one of the mercenaries what laws they thought governed their actions on the battlefield, he told me his company had promised to sneak him out of Iraq in the back of a truck if a questionable shooting occurred (this actually happened in another case involving Blackwater). He said they effectively governed themselves with their own rule of law, which they called "big boy rules." 

Q: What's next for you? Any more collaborations with your brother?

A: We started the NFL book at almost exactly the same moment I started my job as an investigative reporter for ESPN. The two have overlapped some, but I'm looking forward to just focusing on my job for awhile and trying to give some of this time back to my wife, Maureen, and my son Will, who starts high school in the fall. I'd love to do a book with Mark again, but -- I'm laughing as I write this -- I don't know that he feels the same way! It's fun to do a book with your brother but not uncomplicated.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My brother and I owe everything to our mother, Ellen Gilbert, who just this month retired after 30 years as a speech pathologist, helping people with learning disabilities. We're so proud of her. And so grateful.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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