CJR: What have you learned, in the course of your reporting, about what it will take to make the game safer?
Schwarz: A lot of experts believe that improvements to helmets will be important but not necessarily revolutionary over the next ten years. There are some coaches who are uneducated about this injury, and some foolish ones, but the era of the Neanderthal coach who sends his players out to slaughter has passed in general. The amount of medical care that is given to college and pro players is very high, and it would be quite a stretch to suggest that those doctors are just company “yes men.” Now, are some, probably? Yes. In the same way that the worst things that people think about journalists are probably true sometimes. Some people do make up quotes. Does that mean, though, that a majority, or even 2 percent do? No. In high school football the coaches’ response and the medical care are not what they should be, but it’s getting better.
CJR: For the high schools, though, that’s often a matter of resources, right?
Schwarz: Yes, but I’ve never heard a school say, “You know what, the budget’s really tight, so we can’t afford helmets this year. We’re going to play without helmets.” You can’t do that. The question that is fair to ask is this: Is high school football too dangerous to play without a physician or athletic trainer properly trained in the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries on the sideline? In the same way you can’t play football without a helmet, can you play football without a doctor? Those are things that different states are considering, and even Congress is considering various ways that the federal government can get involved in this issue.
My main point, though, is that far more than ever, the biggest opportunity to make football safer lies with the players themselves. They must respect when they sustain anything that feels like a concussion. I don’t care how much of a warrior you want to be, I don’t care what the score is, I don’t care what the standings are. If you get a brain injury, come out of the game and go, hopefully, to the trainer or doctor on the sideline and get checked out and realize that you cannot mess with it.
CJR: Do you think that’s realistic?
Schwarz: There more opportunities for players to do that now than there were three years ago, and I think we deserve some credit for that. But far more has to be done to teach the kids that it’s okay to put down the sword and get yourself checked out. It’s not war. It’s not win at all costs. It is a game. It is an important game for a lot of people and communities and it’s meaningful. But I don’t know any parent who would say, “It’s worth my kid getting killed or put into a coma for two weeks because East Side High is leading by four.” So the question is, how do we teach them before the game starts? And how do we make them feel it is okay to act on that knowledge after the game starts? That’s the adults’ responsibility and it’s going to take a long time to change the football culture, to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve gone a little too far with this warrior thing.” That doesn’t happen overnight.
CJR: From a reporting standpoint, what’s been the most challenging aspect of this story?
Schwarz: Particularly, when it comes to dealing with the National Football League, you can’t fight illogic with logic. You have to find another way to do it.
CJR: What other ways have you found?
Schwarz: One of the things I bring to this story that’s important is that I have a mathematics degree. I know how to see things in numbers that the average Joe probably doesn’t.
CJR: For instance?
Schwarz: Look at a story I did on the 88 Plan data in October. That was some serious number-crunching.
CJR: This is the data from the program that the NFL and the players’ union launched in 2007 to reimburse medical expenses of retirees being treated for dementia. And a lawyer for the union presented an analysis of this data that concluded that the prevalence of dementia and other brain trauma injuries among former NFL players was basically in line with the rates for those problems in the population at large. And your article said that the union analysis was incorrect, and that in fact the data indicated that the rate among former NFL players was significantly higher than in the general population.