In the summer of 2005, my old editor at Inside Sports, who was then at the World Wrestling Federation, called me up and said that a wrestler he knew, this former Harvard football player named Chris Nowinski, had written a book manuscript on concussions and maybe I could give him advice. I was blown away by it—not the text as much as the way everything was footnoted, and footnoted correctly. It was really carefully done. I just thought, wow, this is great.
Now, like everybody else I thought a concussion was a brain bruise—I had no interest in, no knowledge about the topic. But you could tell this was important. So I introduced the wrestler to a couple of publishers and agents, as a professional courtesy. But it never went anywhere, and that was the end of it. I did that stuff all the time.
I forgot all about it until about a year and a half later, when I got a call completely out of the blue from Chris Nowinski. It was late December, a couple days before Christmas. I remembered who he was—it’s hard not to remember the Harvard-football-player-turned-professional-wrestler-concussion-guy. And he said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve got something big here, but I’m not sure I know what to do with it, and you’re the only one who ever took me seriously.” It was Andre Waters—Chris was in the process of having Waters’s brain tissue examined for CTE.
I had to decide what to do with this. And I thought, you know what, this is very serious, it feels like a New York Times story. I was friendly with Tom Jolly, the sports editor of the Times, so I set up a meeting. I still remember all of us fumbling over the word “encephalopathy.” But Tom recognized instantly that this was possibly a very big deal.
They let me do the story. In retrospect, it feels preposterous. I had barely written a word about football—I had done a couple of numbers columns, “Super Bowl excitement index” and silly things like that. Certainly not concussions. And all of a sudden I was talking to neurosurgeons and neuropathologists and ultimately finding out Waters’s test did come out positive, having to call the NFL, and work through what the case meant and what it didn’t mean, what it might mean.
I didn’t really understand neurons and protein deposits and things like that, but I didn’t really need to. I listened to Chris, and I listened to Bennet Omalu, who was the neuropathologist who handled the Waters case. And then I repeated what they said to lots of leaders in the field. And if those people all say “yeah, that’s significant,” you as the writer don’t necessarily have to understand everything. We all, frankly, fake expertise—that’s almost our jobs. But also, and this is important, if there was a story at the Times that dealt with a scientific topic, it got vetted by Science. Someone looked at it and made sure it wasn’t wrong.
Two Plus Two Equals Five
What I did bring was my math background, which really played a huge role in all of this. These doctors were telling me this condition, CTE, does not happen in regular people—it does not happen unless you bang your head over and over and over and over and over again. So this is a million-to-one shot that’s come in three times in a row on NFL players who have been examined for it—Mike Webster, Terry Long, and now Andre Waters. [Webster, a star offensive lineman during the 1970s and ’80s, suffered from dementia and depression after retiring; he was diagnosed with CTE after his death at age fifty in 2002. Long, a teammate of Webster’s, was found to have CTE after he committed suicide in 2005 at age forty-five.]
If I didn’t know anything about neuroscience, I did know enough about conditional probability to know that something was different about this group of football players. And when the NFL, or the NFL doctors, tried to tell me that those three didn’t mean anything—that their published studies asserting that everything was hunky-dory were the last word on the matter—they were attacking my core belief system. They were telling me that two plus two equaled five, and I knew they were wrong. Because the point is not that there are hundreds of football players out there who are not suffering any of these types of deficits. The point is how many of them are having the deficits, and how that compares to the general population.