Alan Schwarz Q&A: Telling the Story of Sports Concussions

Oct 12, 2012, 8:30 AM

Alan Schwarz Alan Schwarz, The New York Times

Alan Schwarz spent the majority of his career as a baseball reporter before authoring dozens of stories for The New York Times unearthing the dangers of concussions in football at all levels—from the professional leagues down to kids’ leagues. He was working as a freelancer when first approached about the public health issue. The end result was a series that made him a Pulitzer Prize-finalist and helped change the face of football.

NewPublicHealth sat down with Schwarz before he delivered a keynote address at the 2012 Public Health Law Conference to discuss how his interest in sports-related concussions began and what he thinks about the impact he made on public health.

NewPublicHealth: How did you come to report on this issue?

Alan Schwarz:  Most regularly I was, along with David Leonhardt, the Keeping Score columnist for the Times sports section on Sundays, where every week we looked at some phenomenon through a statistical lens. But my beat was exclusively baseball. However, I came to know a fellow named Chris Nowinski, former Harvard football player turned professional wrestler, who had written a book about concussions and how serious they were. This was the summer of 2005.

Chris called me up. I got lots of calls from lots of young writers at that time and tried to be nice to them and Chris sent me the manuscript and it was incredible. It was really, really well done, and I thought “this is a very important book.” So I introduced him to a few people I knew here in New York in publishing, because I thought this was really good stuff. Well, no one really gave him the time of day, frankly. No one thought it was commercial enough to succeed as a book. And that was that. I didn't hear from him again, nor did I expect to.

NPH: Then what happened?

Alan Schwarz:  Chris had been investigating the death of a former National Football League player who had killed himself in November of 2006, Chris called me up, basically out of the blue, and said “I have something I think is pretty big here and you're the only one who ever took me seriously.” It was brain damage found in the brain tissue of Andre Waters. We talked about where he should bring that story, and I said The New York Times would be probably the right place. I set up a meeting among the Times sports editor, Chris and me, where we explained the significance of the story. The sports editor grasped it immediately, of course. And to my surprise, the sports editor let me write the story. I didn't think he would. But he did, and obviously the first story got a lot of attention.

NPH: Did you expect that this story would lead to more investigation around sports concussions?

Alan Schwarz: After that first story ran I was still a baseball writer, I was not expecting anything to really come of this. I thought it was one-off story. The next thing I know, Ted Johnson, former New England Patriot, who at the age of 36 was experiencing terrible post-concussion syndrome, called me up and says he wants to go public with his story. And after spending some time with Ted and fact-checking his story, because just because someone wants to tell you his story doesn't mean it's true—a lot of work had to go into verifying what he was saying—I got to write that story, too. And that story ran two days before the Super Bowl. Basically all hell broke loose. At that point the Times was convinced that this was going to be an ongoing story, and to my great appreciation they wanted me to do it. And so they basically hired me right then.

NPH: What changes have you seen in sports since the stories ran in 2007?

Alan Schwarz: Well, there's no question that there are now rules regarding the treatment and handling of concussions that did not exist six years ago. At that time, particularity in the National Football League—and the National Football League set the tone for football leagues nationwide for young and old, not to mention other sports leagues as well—if you got a concussion during a game, it was more than fine to come right back into the game. You weren't necessarily given any tests—you got dinged and then came back in, no problem. You could get knocked unconscious in the middle of a game and come back several plays later.

This was protocol. And not only was it protocol, it was defended in scientific papers composed by the league's concussion committee—papers that held about as much water as your average colander, but nonetheless were published and peer reviewed. And so basically a concussion was seen as a brain bruise and you were fine, you just got dinged, you got back into the game and showed how tough you were, playing with your pain. Clearly, that was not the way to handle things if you wanted to avoid players having post-concussion syndrome or having teenagers die on the football field from second impact syndrome. And so what's happened is there's been an incredible change in the appreciation for the possible severity of concussions. Many concussions are no big deal, nor had anyone ever suggested that every concussion is, by definition, a terrible, terrible problem. As long as you handle it correctly, it doesn't really need to be that big of a deal. However, if you don't handle it correctly—and handling it correctly can sometimes be a little tricky—you can court some real long-term problems.

NPH: Six years later, what would you say the attitude is now, in both professional and school sports? Is there a growing recognition of the concern? Still some resistance to modifying the games to better protect athletes?

Alan Schwarz: Well, I think it varies. I think there are, of course, people who have always understood the importance of concussion and the possible severity of it. They weren't necessarily listened to very well. Maybe that's one-third of the people. Then there are one-third of the people who didn't really understand and now do and really care about doing the right thing. They didn't understand it before, they’ve learned, and they're applying that information. Perhaps there's that last third that doesn't want the games to change too much, who want to cling to their image of these sports as either not that dangerous or a test of mettle, where if you get hurt you shake it off and you show how tough you are to your team.

Unfortunately, with this particular injury, that's indescribably dangerous. But I think that there is some resistance because people don't like real life intruding upon their games, and health concerns and removing the player because of them—there's just something that destroys the fantasy in many ways. It's one thing if a bone is sticking out of your leg, obviously you're coming out of the game and everyone knows this, but with a concussion, frankly, a player can appear just fine. And so it's very difficult to remove them, especially when he's pleading “I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, I want to go play.” And perhaps the parent and this fan would say “What's the matter, why isn't he back in the game? He has a scholarship he's trying to get.” It's a very difficult situation.

NPH: What’s your take on applying law to preventing sports concussion-related brain injuries?

Alan Schwarz: Well, one of the nice things about our republic is that if people want to pass a law, they’ll pass a law, and as long as it doesn't violate the Constitution. That's what the people wanted, or at least a majority or plurality of them. And so laws don't get passed by one crackpot deciding what he or she wants. It's done by a consensus of a community, large or small, deciding what it needs to do in order to obtain what it has decided is important.

And when it comes to, for example, scholastic sports, which are often so far-flung and so at the mercy of each community's attitudes, resources and other approaches to life, that I think that people banded together to say we are not going to allow the communities that don't want to care about this to allow children to be at risk. It's not okay for you if you're in the state of X, it's not okay for the little town of Springfield to say, “You know what, we're just going to let our coaches handle it.” I think people in most states have decided, or their elected officials have realized, that leaving it up to the individual school districts and coaches doesn't work.

NPH: You’ve gotten letters, I'm sure, from parents of small kids, from players, from coaches. Tell me what some of the range of reactions are to the advent of recognizing this is a serious and potentially fatal problem and the use of law to change the game in order to better protect players.

Alan Schwarz: The reaction to the group of stories that we published at the Times…was overwhelmingly positive. For every letter I get saying you're ruining football or you don't know what you're talking about or you never played football, did you, you wimp—stupid things like that—I would get 99 letters from parents of kids who got hurt, who were friends of kids who got hurt or wives of NFL players who got hurt, or players themselves who either got hurt or didn't want to get hurt, saying thank God somebody finally came along to set the record straight about this. They were very thankful that the Times devoted the resources to clarifying the truth about this injury and this occasional cost to people in communities.

I think that people have underestimated the resources that the Times made available to this. It allowed me to focus all but exclusively on it for most of four and a half years. Tell me another media organization that does that. The Times is really special in that way. I'm sure there are people out there who are very thankful that their kids are not injured or dead, who also probably complain about the media this and the media that. Well, I hope that they recognize that it is the media that stuck its neck out for the public good. And that organization is not expecting praise or even thanks, but I think that it hopefully allows people to see what the media can do occasionally to really help people and the role that it can play in the public trust.

NPH: Tell me how you, as a sportswriter, think about changing the game versus helping to improve the health of the players—whether they're little ones or whether they're professionals.

Alan Schwarz: I will answer the question very honestly, and that is that it has been very difficult for me reconciling the fact that we at the time did not just cover the news, we made the news. And that's not usually what we try to do. And specifically for me, I had never wanted to be a hardcore investigative reporter guy with the sharp claws running around ferreting out malfeasance in society. I was a baseball writer. I was good at it and I was a part of the entertainment industry and I didn't think there was any shame in that. All of a sudden, I found myself doing something very different and very important, and I just allowed the people at the Times—who had such a great track record of navigating this type of thing—I trusted them to lead me where things should go. I owe a tremendous amount to the guidance that I received from my editors.

And so it is difficult. People ask me all the time, you changed the game—that must feel so good. I don't think it feels good—it doesn't feel bad, but it has to be secondary to the gratification that I do get from having set the record straight and of having shown and proven that the public was being lied to by certain people, and kids were being put in harm's way with absolutely no informed consent. And you could argue that NFL players have some informed consent about this, but certainly children didn't. There were children being put in harm's way that aren't anymore. But I didn't change the game. The leagues changed the game. I just gave them the right information to consider before they did it, and that's my job. What they do with it is their business.

>> See more about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Preventions efforts to keep Americans safe from traumatic brain injury.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.