by Irvin Muchnick
The fog of hype for the new movie Concussion is thicker than the cobwebs around the head of a wide receiver who just got blasted by a strong safety on a slant route. The film — starring Will Smith doing a bad West African accent as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the breakthrough researcher of chronic traumatic encephelopathy — goes into wide release Christmas Day.
This week a circle of activists and journalists, who confer via an email tree organized by football historian Matt Chaney, have focused on the role of Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes, who was Omalus partner at the West Virginia University Brain Injury Research Institute when Omalu first isolated CTE in autopsies of Mike Webster and other retired and untimely deceased Pittsburgh Steelers players.
On the email thread, one major newspaper sports columnist related that Bailes — today a leading manufacturer of doubt as medical director for Pop Warner Football — had told a media teleconference that there are no studies proving concussions are worse for kids than adults. In fact, there are cases where children recovered better than adults.
As a thought experiment, I encouraged the columnist to substitute into this quote such terms as smoking, lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema, and decide whether Bailes proposes viewing the issue through the right end of the moral lens. When I was growing up in the 1960s, some hundreds of thousands of kids participated in makeshift playground football, which consisted of limited blocking, along with touch in lieu of tackling. In 2015 America, thanks to organizations like Bailes Pop Warner, some three million kids as young as five years old are outfitted in helmets and pads for full-tilt tackle football.
But as well see shortly, the brief against Bailes gets much worse.
Previously, Concussion Inc. told you about Dr. Joe Maroon of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, WWE, and various anti-aging huckster side businesses. Ive taken to referring to this quack as Maroon 1-2-3-4-5, since his for-profit ImPACT Concussion Management System — subsidized to the nines by both the National Institutes of Health and our public school systems — is little more than a fancy way to ask concussed players how many fingers are being held up in front of their noses, then comparing the observed mental acuity with their vaunted pre-concussion baseline tests.
Weve also mentioned in passing the University of North Carolinas resident MacArthur Fellow genius Kevin Guskiewicz, whose research on footballs dangers gets ever more equivocal the closer he gets to the white-hot center of National Football League power experts.
Then, of course, theres Dr. No himself, Ira Casson — so nicknamed for his tobacco-like litany of denial at Congressional hearings when he was chair of the NFLs traumatic brain injury committee.
What makes Bailes arguably the worst med flack of them all is that he has upped the ante on expert palaver: seeing Casson an adult professional athlete and raising him a legally non-consensual child. The medias Hippocratic go-to guy for youth football says, There have been no deaths in 40 years of youth football.
Not, mind you, somewhat fewer deaths than critics suggest.
Bailes made the remark at a September 2013 neurosurgery conference in Munster, Indiana, and in numerous other settings. I have an image of his slide at an April 2015 presentation in Chicago, which reinforces the bullet: No deaths reported in youth football.
Zero, my friends, is a serious number — beyond science, beyond politics, beyond rhetoric. It is Manichean, absolute. In this case, its also a staggeringly large lie.
According to Missouri author-journalist Chaney, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (founded by UNCs Frederick O. Mueller and now directed by Kristen L. Kucera) has reported 27 youth league football deaths since 1986. (The center reported one death, from cardiac arrest, in 2014; the group distinguishes direct impact deaths from those stemming from indirect causes.)
Chaney, a strenuous critic of the Mueller centers passive data retrieval methods and crabbed definitions, says, There are actually some 40 deaths since 1962 among youth league football players, those in organized tackle play for commercial entities like Pop Warner, that I have found in searches of historic news. Since 1986, Mueller has listed 27 such deaths. Most are sudden deaths, likely cardiacs, but there are also various brutal fatalities of football collision. Ill publish Chaney’s list shortly.
Bennet Omalu knows all this. As he takes the bully pulpit of silver-screen celebrity, Lord knows what is keeping him from speaking up more clearly about it — whether a naturally modest style, ivory tower detachment, conflicted loyalty to an old colleague, or a plan by Sony Pictures to release posters of Omalu and Will Smith side-by-side in Speedos.
Omalu is already leaving unrefuted a cheesy Concussion producer-connected social media fundraising campaign for MomsTeam, one of the sports slickest apologists. (This week MomsTeam has been trying to get Omalus rub by tweeting his New York Times op-ed calling for the end of youth football — as if the organizations own position on this question were even in the same philosophical area code.)
Meanwhile, there are many, many, many other things wrong with Bailes football industry-microwaved talking points. For example, like other bloodsport shills, he persists in apples-and-mangoes comparisons between the death rates of youth football and those of unorganized, non-school sanctioned stunt activities, such as skateboarding. (What these stat-swervers always fail to mention is that a single death in a sanctioned high school boxing program led immediately to effective national shutdown of that level of the sport more than half a century ago.) Or even more misleadingly, accident rates of basic transportation, such as automobile driving or bicycle riding.
The heart of the matter, moreover, is not death nor even concussions per se. CTE research clearly suggests that the disease is caused by the accumulation of asymptomatic subconcussive collisions over time, as well as by discretely identifiable and symptomatic episodes.
First things first, though:
Dr. Julian Alec Baldwin Bailes contends that there have been no deaths in squirt football. This is truther irresponsibility of a high order. On its face, it disqualifies him from a seat at the table of serious discussion of footballs future.