The Feature

Brain injuries shake up football coverage

September 28, 2017
Center Matt Paradis of the Denver Broncos prepares to snap to Trevor Siemian during a game against the Dallas Cowboys on September 17, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Denver Broncos wide receiver Bennie Fowler III rose high in the air just inside the goal line as a pass from quarterback Trevor Siemian slipped past the hands of two Dallas Cowboys defenders. Fowler snagged the pass, but collided with a Cowboys safety, tumbling out of bounds and landing awkwardly on his right shoulder and head. What happened next on that sunny September afternoon in Denver was, as Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck said from the booth, “hard to watch.”

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Fowler rose to his feet and took a few unsteady steps before crumbling to the ground. He rose again and stumbled another few yards before falling into the arms of a Broncos trainer who sat him down on the field. Fowler stared into space while surrounded by medical personnel. His concussion, instantly suspected by everyone watching the game, was later confirmed by doctors.

More than a decade into coverage of football’s concussion crisis, athletes, fans, and journalists are well acquainted with the toll the game takes on players. The litany of men who took their own lives after suffering repeated head injuries as players—including Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Junior Seau—haunts every big hit and wobbly departure from the field.

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Last month, ESPN college football commentator Ed Cunningham told The New York Times’s John Branch that he had seen enough and was walking away from the game. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot,” Cunningham said, citing discomfort with the damage inflicted on the players he watched each week.

CJR spoke with journalists around the country who cover the NFL, from beat writers to local columnists to national reporters, about how their work has changed and whether the growing body of knowledge about head injuries has led them to reconsider their own professional choices. Those conversations revealed a shift in focus to players’ health concerns, a new vocabulary for writing about the game, and plenty of conflict about the role journalists play in popularizing a sport that will leave at least some of its participants dealing with complications long after they leave the field.

“Over the past several years, the long-term impact [of football] has been at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” says Jenny Vrentas, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and The MMQB website, who previously covered the New York Giants and New York Jets as a beat reporter. “We’ve gone from an era when [head] injuries and their long-term impacts were totally obscured, even from the people playing the game, to one now when it’s really hard to talk about football without talking about the safety side of it.”

That shift in focus is apparent in Vrentas’s recent bylines. Along with the usual coverage of on-field trends and player profiles, she’s written about Tom Brady’s undiagnosed concussions, a retirement home for former NFL players with a wing dedicated to those with cognitive diseases, Harvard scientists’ advice for improving the game’s safety, and the search for a better football helmet.

Journalists like Vrentas have adapted to the reality by producing stories that help raise awareness of football’s long-term effects, but that awareness hasn’t yet reached at least one powerful person.

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At a rally last week in Alabama in which he ignited a controversy for criticizing players who protested police violence during the National Anthem, President Donald Trump also blasted the league for attempting to make the game safer. “Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game,” Trump said, referring to the penalty for an illegal hit. “They’re ruining the game….They want to hit, but it is ruining the game.” The audience roared its approval.

The old NFL Trump longs for, which built its brand on crunching hits later memorialized in NFL Films documentaries, has been dragged into a new era in which concerns over player health and safety are as much a part of the game as defensive schemes and quarterback ratings.

That new era for news coverage of football can be traced to an article by Alan Schwarz that appeared on the January 18, 2007, front page of The New York Times. Schwarz’s piece revealed that Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist then associated with the University of Pittsburgh, had determined that former NFL defensive back Andre Waters was suffering brain tissue degeneration when he killed himself at the age of 44. The words “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” don’t appear in that first story, but over the next decade, CTE became an acronym intertwined with the NFL.

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Schwarz eventually wrote more than 100 stories for the Times about the dangers of concussions at all levels of football, and other journalists soon took up the issue, forcing an initially resistant league to respond. Reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s 2013 book League of Denial, which was also adapted as a Frontline documentary, drew more attention to the topic, and Dr. Omalu’s battle for acknowledgement from the NFL of the link between head trauma while playing football and CTE was dramatized in a 2015 movie starring Will Smith.

Early in Schwarz’s reporting, some accused him of having an anti-football agenda. For that reason, he tells CJR, he was careful to avoid speculation and grounded his reporting in what he could factually establish. Those who watched Fowler’s disturbing stumble after his concussion may have been skeptical when he returned to the field just a week later, but Schwarz says, “you must grant the team and league the non-zero possibility that this concussion was handled appropriately. You shouldn’t play doctor without all the information….I was always extremely careful. I never called into serious question the handling of an injury unless it was just so damned obvious that it had been botched.”

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Schwarz’s fastidious and comprehensive coverage, bolstered by countless features from journalists around the country and additional studies revealing the prevalence of CTE in deceased players, has changed the way football is covered by beat reporters and columnists coast-to-coast. “Earlier in my career, I thought more about the football teams I covered, and their fortunes,” says Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski. “You’d cover [a player’s concussion] when it came up, but in a way, you had higher priorities. Now, given the increased information, given the increased focus, given the aftermath of League of Denial, given what you hear current and former players say, and given the fact that I have two young sons myself, I do look at things differently.”

Sielski’s reporting reflects his change of perspective: Last year, he spoke with former NFL defensive back Bryan Scott, who has—so far at least—been lucky. Scott lives in Atlanta with his wife and four children, owns two businesses, and hasn’t suffered any major health issues after a decade in the league. Even so, he told Sielski, “there are still pieces of life that I can’t remember. And I don’t remember when I stopped remembering them.” Days after that story ran, Sielski profiled two teenagers who had made opposite choices about whether to continue playing football after suffering concussions.

Newsday’s Giants beat writer, Tom Rock, says that the gradually expanding knowledge of the game’s long-term effects has increased the amount of time he spends with players after their days on the gridiron are behind them. “What [the knowledge of health risks] does is make me more aware of covering former Giants, continuing the narrative in their post-football life,” Rock says. “In the past, once they were gone from the team, that was it. I think there’s more interest in how these guys are coping with life after they step away from the game. It really increases the time I spend talking to non-active players.”

There’s more interest in how these guys are coping with life after they step away from the game.”

The difference is not only in the stories that get written or the way injured players are covered, but in the very words that are used to describe plays on the field. Long gone are the days of ESPN anchors bellowing “JACKED UP!” over highlights of crunching hits. The language of the league has changed in more subtle ways as well. “In writing my game stories I no longer say ‘he got dinged’ or ‘he saw stars,’” reporter Mike Klis, who covers the Broncos for Denver’s 9News, tells CJR. “You no longer use that language. No one says ‘mild concussion’ any more. Until maybe 10 years ago, you used to see that language all the time.”

The change in vocabulary isn’t just about subtracting certain phrases; it’s also about adding new language, often the sort that 10 years ago would have been more likely to appear in a medical textbook than a football column. “The context of an individual injury has completely changed,” Vrentas says. “As more is understood about the long-term effects [of head injuries], I’m using phrases like ‘long-term neurological damage’ in stories. It’s important to remind readers that what you see in the short term can have impact when these players are out of the public eye.”

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While some of the journalists CJR spoke with say recent studies on the health risks of football haven’t affected their feelings about the job, several said they understand and empathize with Cunningham, the former ESPN broadcaster, and his decision to walk away. “Absolutely you think a lot about how your emotional connection to football is at odds with a growing body of evidence. It’s undeniable,” says Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay. “I can understand where an Ed Cunningham, who played the game and has personal experience with this, can feel a very impassioned reaction to the issue to the point that he might want to walk away. As a columnist, someone looking at the game more broadly as to what it means to people, I don’t think I’m ready yet to make that dramatic of a decision, but I understand the impulse.”

Vrentas says Cunningham’s decision has led many to ask her whether she’s considered leaving football coverage behind. “The answer is that I love football. I make my living off of covering football,” she tells CJR. She feels that a large part of her job as a reporter in 2017 is “making sure that you’re always covering this topic, that you’re not masking it, that you’re not ignoring it, that you’re putting it as front and center as it deserves.”

Of course, not all journalists have the luxury of spending weeks or even multiple days reporting an in-depth story on head injuries. Beat reporters are tasked with providing blanket coverage of their assigned teams, often writing multiple pieces in a given day about everything from upcoming matchups to depth-chart updates. That can leave little time to do research and gather interviews for a long feature on the future of the sport. “A topic like this takes hours and hours of research,” says Klis. “It’s tough for beat writers when we’ve got to get to the sprained ankle of the left guard, the matchups for next week. We don’t have enough hours in the day.”

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Despite the demands of covering America’s most popular sport for an audience that obsesses over every play call, wasted timeout, and replay review, the shifting focus of dedicated journalists—concurrent with, and sometimes driven by, the work of medical professionals—has forced the game itself to adapt. Over the past several years, the NFL instituted new protocols for players suspected of suffering head injuries, assigned an independent neurologist to every team’s sideline, and reached a settlement affecting more than 20,000 former players that could cost the NFL more than $1 billion after a lawsuit accused the league of hiding from them the dangers of concussions.

Those dangers don’t just affect players at the professional level, and coverage of the game’s impact on younger athletes has had a dramatic impact. Despite a slight uptick over the past year, the number of children participating in youth football leagues has dropped precipitously in recent years. On Tuesday, The Washington Post’s editorial board published a piece bluntly titled, “Tackle football is not for children.” Citing a recent study from Boston University about the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional problems of those who started playing football before the age of 12, the Post’s board wrote, “there is some risk in most sports, but the emerging evidence seems to put football in a category of its own.”

There is some risk in most sports, but the emerging evidence seems to put football in a category of its own.”

The Boston University study adds to mounting body of research that, combined with increased coverage of the game’s long-term effects, has contributed to some players deciding to leave the NFL early. In 2015, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired from the game after a stellar rookie season, citing concerns over head injuries. More recently, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, a 26-year-old doctoral candidate in applied mathematics at MIT, abruptly retired two days after a major study on CTE was released.

Borland and Urschel’s decisions highlight the questions about head trauma that remain unanswered. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously (though that may be changing), and there’s currently no way to determine the precise effects of head injuries on any individual player. That reality is now a component to every football journalist’s life. “You’re always covering the game with the weight of the knowledge that [a player]—because of what happened on the field today—could face an uncertain future,” Sports Illustrated’s Vrentas says. “That’s sad, and that’s scary.”

CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.