Archive for May, 2011

Why Is New York Times Reporter Alan Schwarz So Defensive About NFL / WWE Concussion Profiteer Dr. Joseph Maroon?

In the course of his whiny, egotistical, and largely fact-free email complaint to me last Friday, Alan Schwarz of The New York Times said the following:

“As far as I know your concern with the coverage stems only from your Maroon-connection-to-Riddell-study issue. Even if that were an issue, which I know it is not for reasons of which you are totally unaware, you have some nerve casting the entire work that way.”

(Schwarz’s full message and my response were posted the same day.)

One striking aspect of this passage is that it raised the issue of Dr. Joseph Maroon in response to an item by me that itself did not mention him. Moreover – as anyone plugging the term “Alan Schwarz” into this blog’s search engine can confirm – I never frontally criticized The Times for its Maroon coverage (as opposed to exhorting The Times and all media to pick up on my exposure of the fuller context of his work for the National Football League and World Wrestling Entertainment, and to connect it to the Riddell helmet investigation in a way that would make it, in my view, more meaningful).

Once again: I have not once ripped Schwarz for what he has written about Maroon.

Until today.

In a January 13 post headlined “Why Didn’t the NFL and WWE’s Dr. Maroon Speak Up About the Riddell Helmet Advertising Claims?” (https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/why-didn%E2%80%99t-nfl-and-wwe%E2%80%99s-dr-maroon-speak-up-about-the-riddell-helmet-advertising-claims/), I wrote:

The New York Times’ Alan Schwarz, whose investigative article last October on the unreliable work of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) helped spur Senator Udall’s call to the FTC, reported that Maroon “disagreed with Riddell’s marketing the 31 percent figure without acknowledging its limitations, and supported Udall’s request for a formal scrutiny.”

Maroon told The Times: “That was the data that came out, but the authors of that study on multiple occasions have recommended further investigations, better controls and with larger numbers. If one is going to make statements relative to the paper we wrote, it should be with the limitations that we emphasized, and not extrapolated to studies that we suggest should be done and haven’t been done yet.”

I went on to document that Riddell had been aggressively exploiting the Maroon-co-authored and NFL-funded study of its Revolution model since no later than July 2008, and wondered why neither the doctor nor the league had raised a peep about it before it became a federal case.

The piece also included this paragraph:

I asked The Times’ Schwarz if he had sought elaboration from Dr. Maroon as to where, when, and to whom he had ever objected to Riddell’s advertising claims exploiting his research. Schwarz declined comment.

After the article was posted, Schwarz emailed me: “Nicely done.”

On January 24, I emailed Schwarz, in part:On or off the record, your choice: Do you intend to explore the Maroon/Riddell fault line? If not, why not? Any insights from your valuable perspective would be appreciated.”

Schwarz again declined comment – but not before first going out of his way to say that Dr. Maroon had been “obviously (and surprisingly) quite generous to me” in comments in a recently published New Yorker article, and to make sure that he, Schwarz, was satisfied that my “motives” in asking the question were pure.

Now that Schwarz’s thin skin has been pierced and he is giving his crypto-assurance that Joe Maroon is a non-story, it’s time to reemphasize that Maroon is not a good guy in the NFL concussion narrative, and has not been for years. Why didn’t Schwarz press Maroon on the history of his enabling of Riddell helmet hype, rather than allow the doctor to get away with a quote triangulating the FTC investigation and distancing himself from the company? Intuitively, this made no more sense than Maroon’s parallel survival as a member of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee for years (up to the present) beyond the exposure of his and other league doctors’ commercial conflicts of interest in Congressional hearings and in the media (some of them well-drawn stories by Schwarz himself).

This is not an attempt to brand a triviality into the main timeline. As the Pittsburgh Steelers’ neurosurgeon, Maroon was on the front rank of the apologists and deniers when Dr. Bennet Omalu identified the breakthrough cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in Mike Webster and Terry Long. Is there a better word in the English language than “lie” for the statement by Maroon that Long’s team medical file showed no concussions – a falsity chronicled by Chris Nowinski in his book Head Games? (After Maroon’s categorical denial, Omalu produced a 1987 letter by Maroon about treating Long for a concussion.)

Any way you slice it, Schwarz’s Mount Olympian dismissal of the very idea that Maroon might be more than a bit player in the national sports concussion scandal ignores a clear and chilling through-line. Maroon’s and colleagues’ articles for the journal Neurosurgery (whose editor-in-chief through much of the period was a New York Giants consultant) downplayed concussion syndrome, beat the drum for pseudo-objective neurocognitive testing in return-to-play standards, and were the direct antecedent of the current state-by-state campaign to put the costs of newfangled concussion management software on the backs of high school sports programs. (The runaway market leader in this field is the for-profit ImPACT system owned by Maroon and some of his University of Pittsburgh Medical Center colleagues.)

The DNA of this whole process is evident again in Maroon’s work for Riddell. That is why I argue that the federal government will solve nothing, and indeed will be aiding a whitewash, if it stops at a probe of the helmet industry.

Finally, if Alan Schwarz’s “reasons” for treating Dr. Joseph Maroon with kid gloves in the pages of The New York Times cannot be articulated even though the reporter initiated a reference to them in an unsolicited communication, then I am not the only reader with “reasons” to question whether the reporter’s impenetrable code here is a public service.

Irv Muchnick

 

PREVIOUSLY:

Is There Now a Feeding Frenzy of Concussion-Related Sports Suicides? (full text from Beyond Chron)

[originally published May 23 at Beyond Chron, http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Is_There_Now_a_Feeding_Frenzy_of_Concussion_Related_Sports_Suicides__9204.html%5D

Is There Now a Feeding Frenzy of Concussion-Related Sports Suicides?

by Irvin Muchnick

We now know that hockey player Derek Boogaard’s recent mysterious death at 28 was caused by a fatal mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. As soon as Boogaard died, his family donated his brain to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy research group in Boston, led by Dr. Robert Cantu and spearheaded by Harvard alum and retired World Wrestling Entertainment performer Chris Nowinski. The Boogaard tragedy followed close on the heels of the Boston group’s announcement that 50-year-old ex-football star Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February, had CTE.

A cluster of recent sports suicides highlights the American concussion crisis, of course. But it also raises another tough question: After years of being asleep at the switch on the scope and magnitude of industrial brain injuries in our couch-potato entertainment, are the sports establishment and media now contributing to a feeding frenzy that is actually causing additional deaths rather than preventing them?

I have a theory. Viewed in the round, the CTE story is starting to look a little bit like rape – an outrage for which awareness and reporting levels inevitably influence public understanding. The root issue should drive consensus, but the methods are delicate. In raising all this in my own indelicate way, I am not indicting Nowinski, who has done the yeoman’s work of putting the whole subject in play in the first place.

In a Beyond Chron column last September, “Why a 2011 NFL Strike or Lockout Would Be the Best Thing for America,” I predicted that this year would be one of reckoning for concussions. Naturally, a yahoo reader (with a small “y”) immediately wrote to call me “an idiot.” I’m not sure he realized that even as his billet deux rocketed through the ether to me, police in Denver were discovering the suicide of a young Broncos player named Kevin McKinley. Did McKinley have CTE?

In February, while the sports pages were filled with stories about what a great guy Dave Duerson was – even though he was on record in Congressional testimony, and as a member of a player-management National Football League compensation board, as downplaying the connections of retired players’ mental disability claims – a former NFL player named Ricky Bell died, with little attention, in South Carolina at 36. His family refused to comment on how. Did Bell have CTE?

My theory is that CTE news is scaring athletes, as well it should. And that some of them could be getting scared to death. Or at least, with the onset of their own horrible post-multiple-concussion syndrome symptoms, finding themselves wondering if it’s better to end it all than to live an additional 10 or 20 years – with a prospect of winding up homeless and crazy like Mike Webster, or homicidal like Chris Benoit.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the federal government has to get on with the task of cleaning up this mess. Investigating the sharp angles of football helmet hype doesn’t even begin to cut it. There’s a long and sorry history here of research conducted and research subtly censored, and the trail is paved in gold by the $9-billlion-a-year NFL.

Another lesson emerging from the Duerson suicide is that the dog-and-pony show of brain study finding news conferences may have passed its peak of usefulness. At this point, we need appeals for more brains to study a lot less than we need more action.

I’ll give the last word of this round to Michael Benoit, the father of Chris Benoit. Mike and I have had our ups and downs, but I’ve never doubted his integrity.

What are my thoughts?” Benoit told me. “My thoughts are that the CTE doctors and advocates need their behinds kicked. Everyone loves to be in front of the cameras talking about the latest case of CTE, but no one is talking about the people who are currently suffering. The research world is an old boys’ club. How many more brains do we need to prove that concussions can cause CTE?

“Here’s what I say: If you are an athlete in a contact sport, take three to five grams of high-grade Omega 3 oils daily. If you get concussed, it will provide protection for your brain and greatly reduce your recovery time. If you are already showing symptoms of CTE, take five to 10 grams of Omega 3 oils daily. It will help your brain by reducing inflammation, and it is a mood enhancer and may help people who are suicidal.”

Irvin Muchnick, who blogs at https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com, is author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.

Connecticut Department of Labor Attorney on WWE Audit

Me: “I am interested in determining whether the Associated Press report of a settlement between the Labor Department and World Wrestling Entertainment is dispositive. While it is understood that you do not disclose names of employers being audited, does a closed file permit you to confirm that one is not being audited?”

Heidi Lane, Connecticut Labor Department attorney: “DOL is still unable to confirm or deny the existence of an audit.  Further, if there were an audit, information obtained for that audit would be confidential, even at the closure or settlement of the audit.”

Me: “Please allow me to go around on this again to make sure I’m clear. If a case is closed, does DOL policy allow you to confirm it’s closed?”

Lane: “No we are not able to give any information at all.”

Hmm … Sounds like this might be another job for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

Irv Muchnick

Muchnick Response to Alan Schwarz of The New York Times

Earlier today I posted an angry email from Alan Schwarz of The New York Times. He was responding to the item here yesterday in which I expressed discomfort with the amount of space he and Chris Nowinski were taking up in the national concussion conversation (while also pointing out, as I do repeatedly, their deserved credit for raising that conversation to its present level).

At the bottom of Schwarz’s disagreement with me is a difference of opinion on the forward thrust of federal investigations of the National Football League. I will begin by explaining that disagreement from my perspective. If I may say so, the Schwarz account carefully adumbrates it. More on this fatal phrase as we move along.

“As far as I know,” Schwarz says, “your concern with the [Times] coverage stems only from your Maroon-connection-to-Riddell-study issue.”

Well, that’s one way to read it. Another way is to note that Maroon is a connection that could help push the current probes by executive agencies and members of Congress from their focus on football helmet safety to a wider scope of NFL accountability for a public health tab we are just beginning to tote up. Schwarz is entitled to the opinion – if his opinion it is – that scapegoating helmet manufacturers gets to the heart of the problem. And I am entitled to mine: that the investigations, plural, need to go much higher up the food chain.

I am not sure which dictionary Schwarz consulted for the definition of the word “adumbrate”; nor is it clear whether he ever got his nose out of the air long enough to look at one at all. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb means “to foreshadow vaguely: intimate”; “to suggest, disclose, or outline partially”; to “overshadow, obscure.”

Schwarz says my use of the word means that I think he has presented the story “somewhat incompletely in an effort to be vague or misleading.” I have never speculated as to his intentions. A less malignant interpretation of the phrase carefully adumbrated could also mean that a Times reporter, in contrast with an independent author, journalist, and blogger, lines up his work with certain calculations about the size of his news hole, the number and timing of his investigative angles, and – finally and critically – the internal political demands of the Times editing machine.

Again, it should be obvious that Schwarz’s resources and methods have distinct advantages over my own, as well as less obvious drawbacks. Having clarified as much, let me go on to say that if Schwarz’s interpretive shoe of having been accused of being willfully vague or misleading fits, then he should wear it. Schwarz asserts by fiat that the Maroon link to the Riddell issue is of little or no importance, “for reasons of which you are totally unaware.” I beg to differ, and I also beg Schwarz to enlighten us all on these alleged reasons instead of carefully adumbrating them.

My comparison of the Nowinski/Schwarz relationship to that of the co-authors of the book Freakonomics “is incorrect, misleading and borderline offensive,” Schwarz says. “… [T]hose two are collaborators and business partners, and make no bones about it. Your strong implication that Chris and I are either of those two things is something I recommend you correct.”

This is another great example of inflating a barb into a crime. The point of the Freakonomics analogy was and is not that Levitt and Dubner are ethically challenged. It is that they reside in an echo chamber. This puts their egos in the foreground and their insights in the background. With or without Schwarz’s permission, I will continue to worry publicly that he and Nowinski might be doing something similar.

Speaking of ego, all praise is due Schwarz for spurring the involvement of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. I rather doubt, however, that he’s “killing” himself in the effort. Evidently Times reporters, like the rest of us, employ the occasional figure of speech.

By the same token, your humble blogger is proud to be the named respondent of the landmark United States Supreme Court case Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick, the latest step in a 17-year-long public-interest fight. So there, and onward.

Irv Muchnick

 

PREVIOUSLY:

Guide to This Blog’s References to Alan Schwarz of The New York Times

In the previous post I published in full a note I received this morning from Alan Schwarz of The New York Times. I’ll respond in the next post.

Below are pointers to all the things I’ve said about Schwarz – some complimentary, some not.

Irv Muchnick

==========

3/18/10

Where Does WWE ‘Medical Director’ Fit in Shakeup of NFL’s Concussion Committee?

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/where-does-wwes-medical-director-fit-in-shakeup-of-nfls-concussion-committee/

***

7/27/10

Latest on NFL Concussion Policies

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/latest-on-nfl-concussion-policies/

***

8/17/10

Was It ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’ Or Brain Trauma? A Fascinating New Study

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/was-it-lou-gehrigs-disease-or-brain-trauma-a-fascinating-new-study/

***

9/14/10

Brain Disease Finding in College Football Suicide

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/brain-disease-finding-in-college-football-suicide/

***

9/16/10

It’s the Breakthrough Year of Concussion Awareness in Sports – Will Connecticut Do Its Part?

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/its-the-breakthrough-year-of-concussion-awareness-in-sports-will-connecticut-do-its-part/

***

1/13/11

Why Didn’t NFL’s and WWE’s Dr. Maroon Speak Up About the Riddell Helmet Advertising Claims?

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/why-didn%E2%80%99t-nfl-and-wwe%E2%80%99s-dr-maroon-speak-up-about-the-riddell-helmet-advertising-claims/

***

1/21/11

ESPN’s Peter Keating Was First to Expose NFL and WWE Concussion Doc Joseph Maroon’s Conflicts of Interest

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/espn%E2%80%99s-peter-keating-was-first-to-expose-nfl-and-wwe-concussion-doc-joseph-maroon%E2%80%99s-conflicts-of-interest/

***

1/23/11

Sports Concussion Scandal Ground Zero: NFL and WWE Doc Joseph Maroon’s Hype Article in ‘Neurosurgery’ on Riddell Football Helmets

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/sports-concussion-scandal-ground-zero-nfl-and-wwe-doc-joseph-maroon%E2%80%99s-hype-article-in-%E2%80%98neurosurgery%E2%80%99-on-riddell-football-helmets/

***

2/20/11

There’s No Overstating Where the Dave Duerson Suicide Story Could Lead

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/theres-no-understating-where-the-dave-duerson-suicide-story-could-lead/

***

2/23/11

For Dave Duerson, ‘88 Plan’ Wasn’t Enough

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/for-dave-duerson-%E2%80%9888-plan%E2%80%99-wasn%E2%80%99t-enough-2/

***

3/8/11

Concussion Inc.: CTE Expert Robert Cantu Has Confused Relationship With Xenith Helmet Company

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/concussion-inc-cte-expert-robert-cantu-has-confused-relationship-with-xenith-helmet-company/

***

3/12/11

TIMEOUT! Flashback to My September 2010 Column, ‘Why an NFL Lockout Would Be the Best Thing for America

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/timeout-flashback-to-my-september-2010-column-why-an-nfl-lockout-would-be-the-best-thing-for-america/

***

5/5/11

Duerson Legacy Belongs in a Labor Department Audit, Not in Jock Hagiography

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/duerson-legacy-belongs-in-a-labor-department-audit-not-in-jock-hagiography/

***

5/18/11

MAROONED: The NFL/WWE Doc … the Journal Neurosurgery … Concussions for Dummies

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/marooned-the-nflwwe-doc-%E2%80%A6-the-journal-neurosurgery-%E2%80%A6-concussions-for-dummies/

***

5/26/11

Chris Nowinski, New York Times’ Alan Schwarz, and the Freakonomicization of Concussions

https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/chris-nowinski-new-york-times%E2%80%99-alan-schwarz-and-the-freakonomicization-of-concussions/

Yesterday’s Post ‘Pisses Off’ Alan Schwarz of The New York Times

Today I received the following email, with the subject line “what you don’t know.”

is that all I did — based solely on the public-interest aspect of his message, and long before I was even an employee of the Times – was introduce him to a few people. And they quickly blew him off. He didn’t find a publisher for his book for another 12 months, and completely independent of me.

More importantly, your comparison to Leavitt and Dubner is incorrect, misleading and borderline offensive. (Despite the fact that both of them are friends of mine.) Regardless of how they might have met, those two are collaborators and business partners, and make no bones about it. Your strong implication that Chris and I are either of those two things is something I recommend you correct.

Third, and most serious, your characterization of the Times coverage as “carefully adumbrated” — which, I’m assuming for now that you know, means presented somewhat incompletely in an effort to be vague or misleading. As far as I know your concern with the coverage stems only from your Maroon-connection-to-Riddell-study issue. Even if that were an issue, which I know it is not for reasons of which you are totally unaware, you have some nerve casting the entire work that way.
I kill myself for six months to expose a serious safety problem — and even conspiracy — in youth football, cause sweeping changes (some about to be announced) and investigations by the CPSC and the FTC, and you sit back and decide that one small issue you think you’ve found with it makes it “carefully adumbrated”? Wow.

I am not above criticism. But misinformed and careless criticism pisses me off. When you accomplish one-tenth of the good for the world and kids that I — or for that matter, Chris — have on this subject, then you’ll really have something.

–Alan Schwarz.

Chris Nowinski, New York Times’ Alan Schwarz, and the Freakonomicization of Concussions

Chris Nowinski has done valuable work on the concussion crisis in sports. That work is also limited and flawed.

He is the subject of a profile in today’s edition of the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper of his alma mater, at http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/5/26/commencement2011-feature-nowinski/. Clearly and deservedly, Crimson reporters Emily Rutter and Scott A. Sherman take note of Nowinski’s value. They may not realize that the Old Ivy orientation of their account also reveals his limitations and flaws.

The story has it all: Nowinski’s Harvard and football pedigree; his fascination with and employment by World Wrestling Entertainment – which led to his debilitating, career-ending concussions; and his decision to write a book about brain trauma in sports and start the Sports Legacy Institute.

The revealing passage, from my perspective, was this:

With the help of Alan Schwarz, at the time a freelance sportswriter for the New York Times, he got in touch with publishers.

“I thought his manuscript was great,” says Schwarz, who had written one book on baseball statistics and was working on another.

As I reflect on what I find both inspiring and dissatisfying about Nowinski’s career advocacy, the (obviously indispensable) Schwarz/Times connection is instructive. It reminds me very much of the phenomenon surrounding Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, a 2005 bestseller by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

For my money, Freakonomics is a pedestrian book, but my opinion doesn’t matter. In any case, I’m more interested in the process of its creation. Freakonomics grew out of a profile of Levitt by Dubner in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times. The two Steves then decided to collaborate on a book. And get this: The epigraph of every chapter of the book wound up being a quote from Dubner’s Times Magazine profile of Levitt.

Talk about a hall of mirrors!

I wish Nowinski the very best, both with his brave personal battle to survive post-concussion syndrome, and his likely as-yet-undiagnosed own case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and with his campaign to spread the word about and temper the brutality of football and other sports.

However, with respect to the latter, I also observe that his voice is skewed, at times even muted, by his ready access to the resources of both our Newspaper of Record and the National Football League (the latter thanks to a $1 million NFL grant to the Sports Legacy Institute’s sister Center for the Study of CTE at Boston University Medical School). You can see it in the increased corporatization of SLI’s message and in the current carefully adumbrated coverage by The Times of football helmet safety and promotion. So much more remains unsaid: the accounting for the tobacco-level scandal of NFL-branded research over the last generation, and the structural solutions we must be devising as a society, outside of willy-nilly litigation on behalf of the many lives ruined and prematurely ended by this system.

Above all, I’m convinced, there is a need for more than just Chris Nowinski’s voice on this critical issue.

Irv Muchnick


Irv’s Tweets

  • RT @TJQuinnESPN: I have this mashup in my head of Jimmy Breslin singing Chuck Berry songs. Kind of overwhelming. 5 days ago
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