Schwarz: The equipment is better. The awareness of the injury and the possible severity of it is higher, particularly among medical staff, but also among players. Players aren’t as foolhardy and unaware and uneducated as they were twenty or thirty years ago. But of course the speed of game is much higher, players are larger—but helmets are better. So it’s hard to know. By no means do my articles about retired players speak directly to the safety or lack thereof of today’s game. I think it’s a very important distinction that a lot of people aren’t making.
CJR: But even as awareness of these injuries has grown, what comes through in the articles is that the warrior culture is still very much intact from the pros on down to little leagues.
Schwarz: Absolutely. I do think, though, that more players are more aware than ever that, “Hey, if I get knocked unconscious or I get really dazed I should come out and have a doctor look at me.” Or that they should just be more careful and not treat it so cavalierly. Does it still happen? Of course. I don’t know to what extent, but I can tell you that it certainly happens less. How much less? I don’t know. I try to be very careful about making the distinction between what we know about football from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and what we believe to be true today.
CJR: Do you ever hear from current players?
Schwarz: The reaction from players has been overwhelmingly positive. Current and former. At least what we’ve heard from these players. Of course, I don’t know how many are harboring feelings that they aren’t sharing with us. The reaction from retired players has been overwhelmingly positive because we are showing how the game was more dangerous than many people realized and these are gentlemen who got hurt on the job and don’t feel like they’ve been fairly compensated for it. The wives and families—I get calls every week from wives crying about their husbands. So it has been very positive because a lot of people believe this has been the NFL’s dirty little secret for a long time and we have made it more okay to discuss it openly. Now, do players who believe that their roster spots are in danger speak about this stuff openly? No, but it is better than it was.
CJR: What has been the reaction from the NFL?
Schwarz: I think that the NFL’s reaction to our work is very clearly evidenced in their comments that are included in the articles. And I can’t speak for them. I will not characterize the nature of their response.
CJR: Have they attempted to persuade you guys to drop the story?
Schwarz: They have repeatedly complained to the highest levels of the editors at The New York Times that we should not be doing what we’re doing. They have complained about us collectively and me personally. The Times is very careful about the latitude it gives its writers, and I have not been told, ever, that what I was doing was inappropriate. The feeling within the building that I get is that this is what a newspaper is supposed to do: apply scrutiny to areas that really matter and that haven’t gotten the scrutiny that they deserve. We’ve been credited with saving lives with this story—specifically teenagers. There’s no question that rules have been changed because of the awareness and conversation that we’ve catalyzed regarding this injury and these risks. We have never once—never—even suggested that football should not be played. All we have done is say these are the risks if you don’t play it safely, and this is how one can play the game more safely. Beyond that it is a decision for adults to make in the National Football League, for young adults to make in college, and for parents to make on behalf of their children who are under the age of eighteen.
And I’d like to say that I get a lot of credit for the work that we’ve done, but this is so much more of a team effort here than a single byline atop stories can possibly convey. They trusted me to go out and do a good job and to do the right job, and have been integral in the directions the reporting has gone. It’s very humbling to be here and be allowed to pursue the story. How many media outlets today, with all the budget problems, would devote what’s probably been half a million dollars and a good chunk of three years of an employee’s time to a single story? Not many.