by Irvin Muchnick
Others seem to have higher expectations than mine for the upcoming movie Concussion. There are only a handful of viable Hollywood plots. In this one, Will Smith — portraying pioneer researcher Dr. Bennet Omalu — is making his bid for Academy Award candidate turf previously occupied by Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich (Erin Brockovich), Al Pacino as the 60 Minutes producer who exposed the tobacco industry (The Insider), and Al Pacino as Serpico (Serpico).
The key is whether Concussion culminates in a dramatic crescendo aimed at downsizing the great sport of football, and with it the carnage it systematically inflicts on our male population; or simply in a limousine liberal call for corporate enlightenment. Awareness safer blocking and tackling technique more professional coaching in high school and youth leagues better helmets.
And that is why, for my money, the biggest story of the film is the one playing out behind the scenes. Two weeks ago, Peter Landesman, the director-writer of Concussion, announced that the producers were partnering with MomsTeam, a Boston-based advocacy group, on public education around football safety. It is a disastrous move for youth sports reform.
MomsTeam, a football industry-friendly nonprofit furiously nibbling at the carrot of grant money dangling from the cottage industries of the Concussion Inc. ecosystem, is exactly the kind of organization certain to make the movies punch line one of co-optation. That my saying so with such bluntness effectively ends my shaky four-year friendship with MomsTeam founder and head Brooke de Lench is beside the point.
The Concussion-MomsTeam axis also challenges Bennet Omalu, a figure I have boosted with great enthusiasm for his unflinching breakthrough findings on chronic traumatic encephelopathy. Bennet and I have spoken at intervals for years, going all the way back to the research for my 2009 book on the murder-suicide of WWEs Chris Benoit. Weve lunched together in Stockton, California, where he is now chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County.
Just because Bennet is being portrayed by Will Smith, doing a bad West African accent, doesnt mean he has control over the spinoff announcements of the Concussion producers. Ive asked him to clarify. Ive also expressed to Bennet my opinion that, in any case, for the sake of his real legacy, he needs to distance himself from MomsTeamism. As I have said many times, it is the sports mothers of America, voting with their feet and their withheld consent forms, who eventually will drive true football reform — but not like this.
To my disappointment, Bennet Omalu has not responded to two email requests for comment on this piece.
I disclose here in some detail my dealings with Brooke de Lench and MomsTeam. In a nutshell, Brooke and I for the most part have privately agreed to disagree about football. And she did me a nice turn in amplifying my coverage of USA Swimming sexual abuse.
Over the last four years I have exchanged scores of electronic messages with Brooke and spent considerable time with her in extended telephone conversations. Let the record show that she initiated our contact. In retrospect, I think she must have mistaken my blog for a larger and more influential voice than it is. On the other hand, Brooke seems to be an indefatigable micro-manager of the image of her MomsTeam brand, so perhaps she was just covering all her bases.
Whatever the explanation, Brooke put a lot of energy into making the case to me that it was she, and not Chris Nowinski of Bostons Sports Legacy Institute (recently rebranded the Concussion Legacy Foundation), who basically invented popular awareness of traumatic brain injury in football. She cited her 2006 book Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and told me that she had counseled what she described as a hapless, post-WWE retirement Nowinski when he was wandering in the wilderness in search of a publisher for his own book Head Games: Footballs Concussion Crisis from the NFL to the Youth Leagues. She characterized Nowinski, as late as 2011 and 12, as a listless public speaker who had a hard time drawing a crowd.
Whatever. Competitive jockeying or jealousy is not a news flash. I would find this tack unseemly even if Brookes claims were 100 percent true (as I am confident they were not). For my part, when sticking the needle into figures like Nowinskis de facto cohort, Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, I much prefer damning with faint praise. Its both graceless and inaccurate, not to mention of no use, to fail to acknowledge that Nowinski, Schwarz, and Dr. Robert Cantu elevated the concussion narrative to the front pages of the Times and other major outlets. That aint chopped liver. The burden of my criticism of the Northeast Gold Dust Trio is that, for political reasons, they often stop short of the true public health implications of their own work. Reasonable people can disagree about such tactics. (Though I gather that Nowinski, at least, today is as mad at me as Im guessing Brooke de Lench now will be.)
Later and more odiously, Brooke tried to plant with Concussion Inc. smears regarding the status of Cantu at Brigham and Womens Hospital in Boston. I didnt bite. However, I did use her information when she was the unnamed source for my reports that the undisclosed underwriter of the documentary film based on Head Games was the billionaire developer of a commercial solution, the King-Devick sideline concussion test.
Brooke is certainly one to talk about hawking bogus solutions. MomsTeam produced The Smartest Team, an antidote to sensational media coverage. The film, which follows the practices of a high school football team in Oklahoma, got air time on a lot of PBS stations. Extolling the six pillars of concussion management, with the goal of preserving and strengthening the game, the documentary is a veiled infomercial for a sensor product inside helmets to measure collision force.
Brooke pestered me to write about The Smartest Team. I declined, explaining in part that I didnt see how an expensive piece of technology, even if more or less effective as defined, was replicable across all public school and little league football programs. I also said we had philosophical differences. She conceded that cost was indeed an issue, and accepted this agreement to disagree.
Along the way, I held my tongue as Brooke wrote some of the most appalling football mom essays on the prime goal of not throwing this manhood-building baby out with the bathwater. What might have been the very worst piece was published in the San Jose Mercury News.
Through it all, Brooke retained a certain Teflon magic. No CTE denier, she. In football mom confrontations with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his functionaries, Brooke wasnt the giggling starstruck blogger seduced by the opportunity to take turns spinning around in the swivel chair behind Goodells desk. Rather, she was the journalist: the toughest and most skeptical questioner in the room.
This patina of scientific aloofness also infuses MomsTeam.com, where, with the help of panels of experts who are regularly trotted out, Brooke argues that nowhere else will you read such an objectively sound account of concussions — only the known facts about CTE and other risks.
Naturally, the takeaway is a call for further research — not a suggestion that the parents of our society consider the possibility of thinking about pondering the weighing of the tiny chance that there just might be many other equally effective, if not more effective, teamwork-oriented and community-enhancing extracurricular activities that do not, at the same time, require massive subsidies from our health care and public school systems.
In the summer of 2012, I ran into one of my periodic stone walls with a major media outlet. Yahoo Sports PostGame.com had sent me to the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha to write a feature about the burgeoning scandal of widespread sexual abuse and cover-up in the sport. When PostGame edited my piece, then sat on it — a familiar refrain — I turned to Brooke de Lench, who published it at MomsTeam.com the day before the Washington Post broke the story of the quarter-century-old cover-up of now-imprisoned coach Rick Curls abuse of his young teen swimmer Kelley Davies.
I was and am grateful for the megaphone. MomsTeam also published a few other swimming pieces by me. One exposed an internal USA Swimming memo outlining a six-figure PR and lobbying campaign just as Congressman George Miller cranked up federal investigations of Olympic sport governing body sex abuse.
In the fall of 2014, as the Miller probe approached its climax (it would fizzle and Miller, like so many politicians of all ideologies, would retire into the comfy world of double-dipping on a Congressional pension and a sinecure lobbying job), VICE Sports commissioned me to write a new long piece about the shame of our countrys swimming program. VICE, too, ultimately wimped out, and I sent the article to Brooke. MomsTeam did a good edit, but when it wasnt published in what I regarded as a timely fashion, I pulled it and ran it here.
In case this topic comes up in future volleys, please note that I never sought nor was paid a penny by MomsTeam for any of my writings.
The most hilarious part of MomsTeams vetting of my 2014 story was the intervention of Katherine Starr of Safe4Athletes, a new member of their panel of experts. Katherine called and explained to me that she just wanted to make sure my facts were straight. For instance, she said, you state that Deena Deardurff Schmidt [who accuses Hall of Fame coach Paul Bergen of molesting her as a youth swimmer] swam in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Youre wrong. She was on the team in Montreal in 1976. Im good at these dates. Here, Ill check…. Oh wait, youre right. My bad.
The extent to which Katherine Starr is a four-flusher would become clear with her December 2014 announcement that she was on the advisory council of the U.S. Olympic Committees ghost National Center for Safe Sport. Neither Starr nor Olympic officials respond to queries as to whether this center, one year in, has anything whatsoever to show for an announced allocation of $5.2 million — no staff, no office, no website, no nothing. Meanwhile, Starrs Safe4Athletes site has fallen as quiet as a mouse. As Curly of the Three Stooges would have said, Yeah, a deaf and dumb mouse.
All of this is background for the question of whether Brooke de Lench and MomsTeam, and in concert with the producers of Concussion, have all the answers to the existential crisis of football. Dubious is much too mild a word for my take on this question. Please count me out of the self-serving hype of those claiming to be saving this blood sport from itself.