On October 17, 2010, the Philadelphia Eagles hosted the Atlanta Falcons before a crowd of nearly 70,000. The game was expected to be a tough contest between two of the top teams in the National Football League, but the Eagles jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and, early in the second quarter, were driving again. On third down, the Eagles lined up to pass, with wide receiver DeSean Jackson split out far to the right. After quarterback Kevin Kolb took the snap, Jackson took a few steps forward, then turned left and sprinted across the field. As Kolb’s pass arrived, Jackson leaped and grabbed it, arms outstretched. He had just turned upfield when his progress was stopped by Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who, arriving from the opposite direction, drove the crown of his helmet into Jackson’s shoulder. The collision knocked both players to the turf for several minutes; each was later diagnosed with a concussion. But the media firestorm that ensued can’t be explained only by the ferocity of Robinson’s tackle, or by the concussions suffered by nine other players on what was soon dubbed “Black-and-Blue Sunday.” After all, violent hits like Robinson’s had been tolerated, even celebrated, in sports media for years.
The about-face was the result, in large and improbable part, of the work of a stats-oriented freelance baseball writer named Alan Schwarz. In early 2007, Schwarz reported in The New York Times that Andre Waters, a former Eagle who committed suicide at age forty-four, had been found to have a degenerative condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The Times hired Schwarz within months, and over the next four years he wrote scores of stories about the concussion-related risks faced by football players. His articles uncovered elevated dementia rates among retirees and documented obfuscation by the NFL; they prompted congressional hearings and scrutinized an unregulated helmet industry; they showed wives caring for fading husbands and communities trying to protect their children. Other reporters had covered this terrain before, but never with the persistence of Schwarz, who kept the story going by, in his words, demanding that the people he was covering “make sense.” In the process, he put the issue on the agenda of lawmakers, sports leagues, and the media at large—and helped create a new debate about risk and responsibility in sports. CJR’s Greg Marx interviewed Schwarz in New York City last summer.
The Math Geek
My first day of kindergarten, when we went around the room and everyone said what they wanted to learn, what did I say? “I want to learn square roots.”
I went to college planning to become a math teacher. I just loved numbers. But by the time I majored in math, I was pretty burned out on school. And a friend of mine was on the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. It had a great reputation, and it seemed like a fraternity that I could join. As a kid, I had gotten into baseball through baseball cards—I really liked the numbers. So I joined the paper and wrote sports, and by the time I graduated, I decided I wanted to be a sportswriter.
I did what everybody does—I sent out letters to every newspaper in the country. And I didn’t get nibbles anywhere. I still have my rejection slip from Neil Amdur here at The New York Times. But I did have a family connection at The National who helped me get considered, and I got hired there as an editorial assistant. Basically, I answered phones and tried to help Mike Lupica get his stories filed. But when things started to get rough financially at the paper in late November 1990, I was in the first round of twenty-five let go.
By this time I knew some people at Baseball America, and it turned out they had a spot for me. I spent six years there writing and editing everything you could possibly think of involving baseball. When I left and came back to New York, I had friends all over publishing, so it wasn’t that hard getting freelance gigs. I wrote for Inside Sports, I got my first article in the Times, I got on ESPN. I sort of knew everybody and everybody knew me, and it was a very good situation.
Fumbling Over ‘Encephalopathy’