It was a busy week, so I didn’t get to Ben McGrath’s excellent article on the future of football w/r/t concussions and other traumatic brain injuries until now. He spends a lot of time giving well-deserved recognition to the work of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who has produced the best and most high-profile reporting on the concussion problem.
McGrath’s story really is worth a read, but there are a few things he touches upon that particularly stuck with me. For one, there’s this obvious-yet-vital tidbit about why the Times, as opposed to ESPN, is the outlet driving the story:
Schwarz had the backing of a news organization that did not see itself as having any symbiotic ties to the game’s economic engine. (ESPN, which drives the national conversation on sports, invests more than a billion dollars a year in football broadcasting.)
ESPN is a useful resource for sports fans looking for entertainment and occasional edification; they employ some of the best sportswriters in the game and obviously have unrivaled resources. But while the television network is stunt-heavy (“The Decision,” “Who’s Now?”, et cetera), reporters covering the major sports often run into the same problem a lot of beat reporters encounter: access.
Schwarz may not have been out to get football, but he was clearly less emotionally invested in it than most of his predecessors and peers, who had helped build the sport into the de-facto national pastime with romantic coverage of heroic sacrifice. He was not a fan. “I’d been pitching this to reporters for years,” [concussion activist Chris] Nowinski told me, of the head-injury problem in general. “People in football told me, point blank, ‘I don’t want to lose my access.’ It literally took a baseball writer who did not care about losing his access, and didn’t want the access, to football.”
The “access” issue is one that crops up for reporters covering every beat imaginable. On the one hand, access gives you a chance to glean information from key figures in the stories you cover, it gives you richer and more in-depth understanding of the subject matter and it, hopefully, provides for better reporting (and, therefore, a better service to the public). But access also means that reporters have something to lose, which in turn gives sources and subjects power over the reporters. Anybody who spends any time reading stories or watching news about politics is well-versed in this; afraid to lose sources and prominence, people waste time on non-stories and non-issues, and the political discourse seemingly takes place in a different world than everybody else inhabits.
For ESPN, which quite baldly makes a bundle on the NFL and the other major sports, this is a big problem. A lot of sports fans get most of their news from ESPN. The network is, in turn, in bed with a lot of the sports it also covers; just this month, we learned the network is nearing a new multi-billion dollar deal with the NFL so it can keep airing “Monday Night Football.” It’s symbiotic. They can say all they want about the separation of business and editorial, but when you have the kind of investment ESPN has in what is the most popular sport in the country, it becomes a lot harder for reporters to truly highlight something so damaging to the league. That is why the league and people who have financial stakes in the future of football are pissed at Schwarz. As McGrath puts it, the concussion stories “threatened to affect the so-called pipeline, the future sons of football, whose non-sports-fan mothers were reading his accounts.”
That’s the key issue with coverage of (and attempts to deal with) concussions, of course; it will always be an uphill battle to get people to properly approach something so intertwined with their livelihood. And McGrath touches on the bigger issue with football: how, exactly, can you decrease serious brain injuries without completely changing the game? One smart proposal says that you get rid of, or seriously alter, kickoffs and punts; while returns can often be exciting, they are also the plays when the most serious injuries can easily take place, as we saw when a Rutgers player was paralyzed trying to make a tackle last fall. While that could help avert some injuries, it’s still a game where 300-pound men launch into one another at the line on every play and where some of the best athletes in the world are required to physically bring down their opponents.
McGrath touches on a crucial part of this, and something you don’t see in the highlights after the game: the way fans react when an injured player is lying prone on the turf. “Those aren’t expressions of morbid curiosity. They reflect a guilty fear that, one of these days, millions of us are going to watch a man die on the turf,” he writes. This isn’t idle speculation. The players are only getting faster, stronger and smarter thanks to improvements in training, medical technology and the breakdown of film, which enables coaches and players to zero in on weaknesses in their opponents and exploit them. It’s impossible to conclude anything else: a player is going to get hit the wrong way, at the wrong spot or the wrong angle, and millions of people will be witness to this moment. That might be the only thing that causes changes. I’m no expert, so I have no idea what changes, exactly. But it would be nice if the league and the owners, executives, coaches, personnel and players who profit from the sport’s success dealt with the issue before it gets that far.