The rates I got actually weren’t that alarming. But the real breakthrough came later when I noticed that the plan was only open to vested players, those who had played four or five years in the league. So the denominator just plummeted, and the rates of dementia went whooosh.
By August of 2009, we were getting ready to try to figure out how to publish this—“data proves,” or “suggests,” or “indicates,” whatever verb we were going to end up comfortable with. And then somebody leaked me the Michigan study, a phone survey commissioned by the NFL that showed these dramatically elevated rates of Alzheimer’s and memory impairments among former NFL players. It was a different data set, but it proved what I had been noodling with. The numbers were almost identical. Basically, the NFL scooped me. Their own study scooped me. When we published that story, people finally understood.
We published my 88 Plan analysis a few months later, after the lawyer for the players’ union did his own noodling with some numbers, and came out saying everything’s fine. Well, it was totally fucked up. His numbers were wrong, and his analysis was wrong. And I could tell that instantly, as soon as the person who leaked it to me handed it to me, because I had studied it myself.
Dispassion Drives People Crazy
One of the challenges throughout was how to take otherwise dry material and turn it into something humane, to put a face on it. Most of the time, those faces were women. I realized pretty early that it was the men who lived the dreams, and the women who lived the nightmares. Their husbands were either brain-damaged or brainwashed, but the women got it. And so I used them to understand, to learn, to find out more.
At the same time, none of them ever said, or even suggested, that football should not be played. None of them ever said, “I hate football.” Eleanor Perfetto, whose husband has degenerative dementia, said, “Hey, I’m a football fan.” Linda Sanchez, the congresswoman who starred at the hearings, said she’s a football fan. They’re all fans; they don’t want it to go away. They just want it to be less stupid.
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.