In 2007 The New York Times hired Alan Schwarz largely on the basis of his initial freelance reporting for the paper on the problem of head injuries in professional football. Since then, Schwarz’s persistent coverage has helped make the issue—which had been kicking around the edges of sports journalism for twenty years—part of the national conversation, prompting two congressional hearings and a sea change within the National Football League on how it deals with head injuries. After years of denying that concussions can produce long-term health consequences, including dementia, the league did an about-face in December and agreed to financially support research into concussions by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, one of its harshest critics. That came on top of rule changes announced in November that prevent players exhibiting any signs of a concussion from returning to either a game or practice on the same day as the injury occurred, and then not without clearance from an independent brain-injury expert. CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke to Schwarz in November.
CJR: How did you get on this story?
Schwarz: Like many big journalism projects, this one fell out of the sky. A friend of mine was friends with a professional wrestler, Chris Nowinski, who had sustained several concussions both as a wrestler and as member of the Harvard football team. And this young man was writing a book about concussions and about the severity of them in the summer of 2005, and our mutual friend told him that I had written my first book the previous summer, that it did very well, and that maybe I could give him some advice on his book. So we met and I looked at his manuscript and it was fantastic. And we became friendly and I believed in his project. I guess very few people did because the following December, 2006, when he had taken it upon himself to investigate the [former Eagles defensive back] Andre Waters suicide, and he found out that in fact Waters did have this terrible brain damage, he called me back—we hadn’t spoken in maybe a year—and he said, “Alan, you’re the only one who took me seriously. What do you think I should do with this finding?” I was not on staff at the Times. I had contributed a good deal to the sports section over the previous ten years, and I knew this was something they’d be interested in, and I set up a meeting between me, the sports editor Tom Jolly, and Chris and this was early January ’07. Tom immediately saw how important this was. After the meeting I took Tom aside and said I totally understood if he wanted to have a staff person handle this. He said that it was my story, and I will be forever grateful for that trust, because I did do the Waters story and then [former Patriots linebacker] Ted Johnson wanted me to write his story, and the topic became part of a national sports debate, almost immediately. The Times hired me virtually on the spot.
CJR: I would say that it became part of a national debate largely on the strength of your reporting.
Schwarz: Well, yes and no. Because it’s always been known that hitting one’s head over and over and over and over and over again is dangerous. And to many doctors the leap from suggesting that what happens to boxers might happen to football players is not a particularly significant leap. And yet there has been great resistance on the part of a certain segment of doctors to allowing that connection to be made. So I think what you have is the collision of something some experts find so reasonable and what some people just don’t want to consider possibly being true. What if football is really that dangerous? There are an awful lot of dominoes that fall from that. It’s a very difficult problem. It is very difficult to know what era of football is dangerous. Just because we find out that a lot of players from ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s have brain damage, doesn’t mean the current players will incur that damage.