FLASHBACK: How The New York Times Is Fumbling the National Sports Concussion Scandal

New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, May 27: “As far as I know your concern with the coverage stems only from your Maroon-connection-to-Riddell-study issue. [I know that is not an issue] for reasons of which you are totally unaware …”

New York Times columnist George Vecsey, June 14: “the NYT has led that story for three years. what are you talking about?”

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[originally published 6/3/11 at http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/How_the_New_York_Times_Is_Fumbling_the_National_Sports_Concussion_Scandal_9229.html]

How The New York Times Is Fumbling the National Sports Concussion Scandal

by Irvin Muchnick

In a January New Yorker article on the concussion crisis in football, writer Ben McGrath quoted Pittsburgh neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon speaking admiringly of Alan Schwarz, the New York Times reporter who created this beat and more recently was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Schwarz, said Dr. Maroon, is “the Socratic gadfly in this whole mix.”

Unlike Socrates, however, Schwarz asks questions that are carefully and corporately adumbrated. The resultant national spirit of cautious inquiry into a stunningly broad public health story is being driven by our Newspaper of Record. This process has the effect of protecting powerful and moneyed interests.

As the game is currently being played, the final score will be some combination of Ivy League-style reforms of football safety and rules, in a sequel to President Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign in the early 20th century, along with federal investigations scapegoating helmet manufacturers – all while letting the $9-billion-a-year National Football League off the hook for a scandal of near-tobacco industry proportions.

I don’t think anyone from the Riddell helmet company is going to jail after Congress, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission are finished probing how the company ran hard and fast with ambiguous data from a safety study underwritten by the NFL. Nor do I think anyone should, based on what we so far know, despite the Purple Heart that Schwarz awarded himself last week in a bush league email complaint about my blog’s coverage: “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 …”

(For my full exchange with Schwarz, go to https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com.)

Schwarz, who used to write books analyzing baseball stats, is in his element when he verbally slaps around the leadership of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. He is obviously less comfortable confronting figures like Dr. Maroon, a team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers who remains, inexplicably, a quotable authority even though he is facemask-deep in the concussion scandal. For years, Maroon has conducted book-cooking, NFL-friendly, “peer-reviewed” research boosting the for-profit ImPACT concussion management software system developed by his team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Maroon is also the medical director of World Wrestling Entertainment, a huckster for at least two supplement companies, and a serial liar in the concussion narrative. In 2005, after Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered the second Steelers case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his autopsy of Terry Long, who had committed suicide, Maroon stated categorically that there was no record of Long’s ever having had a concussion while with the team. Omalu soon produced a 1987 letter by Maroon proving the contrary.

It would behoove the most celebrated concussion reporter in American journalism to press Maroon for better answers. Instead, Schwarz has allowed Maroon to distance himself from the NFL’s Riddell helmet study, which the doctor co-authored with, among others, the company’s chief engineer, and which Riddell then exploited in its promotion.

Ah, but Maroon is not an issue, Schwarz asserted to me – “for reasons of which you are totally unaware.” If that’s true, then this titan of communications needs to do some more communicating.

One upshot of Schwarz’s incomplete coverage is that ImPACT has been purchased by an estimated 10 to 15 percent of high school football programs across the country, often under the mandates of new state “safety” legislation. I believe that, rather than shifting the NFL’s public-health tab to already financially beleaguered school districts, we should be talking seriously, not as a throwaway line, about whether high school football is medically, legally, and educationally sustainable.

Somehow The Times has not seen fit to print the devastating critique of ImPACT by Christopher Randolph, a neurology professor at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports. (Credit for first publicizing Randolph’s work goes to blogger Matt Chaney, author of the excellent but little-known book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football.)

Randolph wrote: “There is no evidence to suggest that the use of baseline testing alters any risk from sport-related concussion, nor is there even a good rationale as to how such tests might influence outcome.” He added that independent studies of ImPACT show a level of reliability “far too low to be useful for individual decision making.” In sum, youth sports programs using it are investing in a false sense of security.

And what, I ask Alan Schwarz and The New York Times, would Socrates have to say about that?

Irvin Muchnick, author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, is working on a book about concussions.

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