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.
Schwarz: Correct. When the union did its analysis it did it in what looked like a reasonable way, but it wasn’t a reasonable way. I looked at what they did and instantly saw it was wrong.
CJR: What specifically?
Schwarz: I looked at the prevalence numbers and knew they were wrong. Not only had they taken the wrong column of data from a published chart, but they didn’t notice that it was rate per thousand rather than rate per hundred. Also, there were errors in logic and sampling. They interpreted the 88 Plan rate as being the dementia rate for all NFL retirees, and that is preposterously wrong. It is a bare minimum of a certain level of dementia, because to be on that list you had to be aware of the program and also had to have volunteered that you have the disease. There is a lot more dementia out there—either unreported or cases that don’t reach the level of severity where it qualifies for the 88 Plan. That doesn’t mean the NFL is evil. It just means that the person who did the work didn’t know what he was doing. And that’s okay. But why isn’t this stuff being done proactively by the league and the union? Why does it have to be done by The New York Times?
CJR: Would you let your son play football after what you’ve learned?
Schwarz: That’s like asking a political reporter before the election, “Who are you going to vote for?” It’s my job to cover the issue, it’s not my job to decide or even discuss how I will let the issue affect my family.
CJR: It’s not your job as a journalist, but as a human being it is difficult to avoid.
Schwarz: The point is there are certain things you don’t allow to creep into your head because it’s your job to make sure they don’t. And I really haven’t thought about it because if I were to decide that Teddy won’t play football, then the mindset with which I follow the story could come from the wrong place. It cannot come from concern about my little boy. The New York Times is not writing about this to protect Teddy Schwarz. The New York Times is writing about it to protect the 1.2 million kids who play high school football every Friday, and their 2.4 million parents. Those are the people whose opinions matter. Not mine.
CJR: Let’s assume for a minute that your son, who you said is three years old, is actually ten years old and he is clamoring to play Pop Warner football. Would the fact that you would then have to decide disqualify you from covering the story?