Dispassion is incredibly powerful in a reporter. It drives people crazy. If I come off as somebody who’s trying to change football, I lose something. There are people who are wired to play off the amplitudes of argument, and if you stray too far from what makes sense, boom—they cut you off right there. They jump into a zone more reasonable than yours, and you’re sunk. But if you go down the middle, they got nothing.
It was similar with the helmet story. Helmets were something I always wanted to look at, but I never really had a chance to do it until May or June of 2010. And once I did a little digging, I learned that the standards to which helmets are held has nothing to do with concussions.
Now maybe they can’t, but people think that they do. That was the thing the guys in the helmet industry who came to hate my guts never understood—all I was saying is that the helmets, intentionally or not, are communicating a level of safety that they do not afford. The goal was just to get the consumer to realize they should pay more attention and expect more. And from there, whether the child or the parent chooses to engage in that activity is their business, it’s not my business.
The helmet article, though, was also a case of me becoming part of the story in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. There was a sense that this subject was going to evolve how I decided it would. Everything that was going to come after that was just going to be because Schwarz wanted to stick his nose into it. It just didn’t feel right. At the same time, a lot of people started to assume my mindset was something that it wasn’t—they almost made it seem like I was a crusader. The only thing I’m a crusader for is accurate statistical statements. If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s for making sense.
Part of the Story
And then there was the Dave Duerson episode, where after he killed himself I found myself getting accused of helping to cause his suicide. [In February, Duerson, a former NFL star who helped administer the league’s disability plan, fatally shot himself in the chest. Apparently suspecting that he had suffered brain damage, Duerson left a note asking that his brain be examined; he was subsequently found to have had CTE.] He had read my stories, and obviously I had not painted a lot of portraits of players doing just fine. At least in writing the note—that request was caused by me.
So, of course I looked in the mirror. And maybe I had not done a good enough job of explaining that this doesn’t happen to everybody, that the point is just that it happens to significantly more of them than it should. When the Duerson results were about to come out, I knew—I said, people have underreacted to all of these; they’re going to overreact to this one. And so I wrote a story on how people are misinterpreting the rate at which these things are happening: just because fourteen out of the fifteen who have been examined posthumously have been found to have it, doesn’t mean that fourteen out of fifteen football players have CTE. It’s a completely separate mathematical animal.
But to be publicly accused of causing someone’s suicide—I didn’t think that was fair. It left me feeling, I don’t think I’m supposed to be this much part of the story. And by that point, this had taken such a toll on me mentally. I would dream about it; I would think about it constantly. Four and a half years is a long time to be on a tightrope. It was time to see if I could get it out of my head. So I left the sports department in April, to start writing about education. I plan to retire at the Times, and I won’t be writing about concussions when I do.
Looking back, the main lesson I learned? Never trust the phrase, “According to a study published in. . . .”
Ends 7/31: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.