Archive for May 26th, 2011

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 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

Connecticut Media Profiles in Caution on the WWE Independent Contractor Story

A prominent Connecticut journalist, in his wisdom, took the time to email me for the sole purpose of sniffing that my previous item on this blog was a “non-story.” For proof, he offered the analysis of James Caldwell of Pro Wrestling Torch (

$7,316 is a tiny drop in the bucket for WWE, so this won’t affect them. The state’s TV production tax credits to WWE over the past few years is about 1,000% larger than this fine.

The next step should be an investigation of WWE’s independent contractor classification, but that probably won’t happen after the Department of Labor went through a two-year audit that likely cost a whole lot more than the fine WWE will be paying. It would be difficult to justify a follow-up investigation despite evidence WWE does not meet the guidelines to classify wrestlers as independent contractors.

You can file this one — both the Caldwell observation and my esteemed correspondent’s exploitation of it — under “speaking platitudes to power.” If Linda McMahon takes another stab at a U.S. Senate seat next year, as expected, Governor Dan Malloy, Labor Commissioner Glenn Marshall, and others might get a little better focus on the independent contractor issue. But they won’t get much help from the public-spirited commentators of the Nutmeg State, who will be busy replaying the YouTube of Linda kicking wrestling announcer Jim Ross in the testicles.

Irv Muchnick

WWE Tries to Ring the Bell on Connecticut Labor Department Probe

In an obvious and ham-handed two-stage leak by corporate operatives, the Associated Press is reporting that the Connecticut Labor Department’s audit of World Wrestling Entertainment independent contractor practices laid a dud.

The second and more-developed version of the story, under the headline “APNewsBreak: Contentious audit finds WWE owes $7K,” is at

The upshot, according to WWE lawyer Mary Gambardella (where is ole Jerry McDevitt when you need him?), is that a two-year investigation of the company turned up an alleged $7,316.64 shortfall in unemployment insurance payroll taxes for a couple of dozen part-time film archive editors. WWE paid the bill under protest to make the nuisance go away. To give this all extra-comical resonance, the employees in dispute had had the job of blurring out the old logo “WWF,” for “World Wrestling Federation,” following a successful trademark infringement suit years ago by the World Wildlife Fund, which forced the wrestling entity to change its name and abbreviation.

The substantial independent misclassification controversy at WWE isn’t about a few office flunkies, of course. It’s about how the wrestlers on Vince and Linda McMahon’s payroll, who drop dead by the bushel before their time, are not treated as the regular employees everyone knows they are, and are thus cheated out of covered health care and other benefits. (In the bargain, governments at all levels also get stiffed out of payroll taxes.)

If this is the last word on the subject from Connecticut Labor Commissioner Glenn Marshall, with the blessing of Governor Dan Malloy, then the state’s government and politics have become even more of a national laughingstock than they already were.


Irv Muchnick

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May 2011