by Irvin Muchnick
Over the last few days I’ve had a revealing exchange of emails with a national sports columnist whom I criticized for what I thought was a poor piece about National Hockey League suicide Todd Ewen.
Without identifying the columnist, I’ve decided to post our entire exchange. The reason is that it dovetails with my comments, less than wildly enthusiastic, on two front-page New York Times articles on the football crisis — one last week by Alan Schwarz and one today. In turn, this leads to what I consider the heart of the matter in concussion and CTE coverage: investigation of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ unexplained about-face on youth football safety. Others are working on this angle with diligence, and I look forward to soon spreading the word on their findings.
Your point that hysteria alone is scaring some people to death is taken. Hysteria in public translation of even the soundest arguments is not a good thing.
That said, it’s just sad to see your platform used to enable the manufacture-of-doubt crowd. And make no mistake, manufacture of doubt is the takeaway from this column — another plea by an expert to accumulate “more and better” science on the football question, as you fall for the line that this represents meaningful dissidence or a spirited debate. What a poor job from a writer from whom I’ve come to expect better.
So Todd Ewen’s case … just a manufacture of doubt? I’d like to know how you understand the Ewen case in the context of what we know about contact sports and CTE.
Here’s what I think. I don’t know what happened with Ewen. What I know is that football chews up and spits out human beings in multiple ways, of which CTE is only one. I think the first sentence of my note to you made it clear that I was acknowledging the possibility of counterintuition in assessing individual cases. (Mike Webster himself, a crazy-ass steroid abuser with a family history of mental illness, is Exhibit A.) My beef with your column was its choice to transcribe Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher uncritically, so that what the reader was left with, entirely or mostly, was the thought that all this football-is-bad stuff is hype.
There are six million stories in the Naked City. If you felt that the one you needed to tell this week was about a guy who smoked cigarettes yet might not have died from lung cancer, then you have more explaining to do than you seem willing to acknowledge. And yes, in the context of the current public health debate, that is the kind of storytelling I consider the manufacture of doubt.
I’m assuming you’ll send the same note to the New York Times:
There are several experts on the same page here, not just Kutcher. [Ann] McKee herself is bolstering the need for caution rather than conclusions. The doubt you speak of is scientific and it’s appropriate at this time. Could we get to the point where football is tantamount to cigarettes? Yes. But we’re not even close right now. I think the public should know that.
I think I’ve been sufficiently nuanced in my criticism of your column. That you’re flinging back at me the latest generic NYT story, along the lines of a circa 1965 headline “Vietnam War dissidence still in its infancy,” is a further indication that you don’t get it. Which is, as I said at the beginning, disappointing.
Yes, football = tobacco is a flawed analogy, especially in sheer numbers. But as I’ve said over and over (publicly and in my note to you), CTE per se is just the hook of the current case against football, and by no means the sum of its public health toll.
In one sense, football is much worse than tobacco, in that the former still has the approved and reinforced participation of millions upon millions of non-adults. The unexamined assumption of stories like today’s in the Times (and apparently your own take on the issue, as well) is that it is OK to turn a generation of kids into lab rats for “learning more about CTE.” I find this position repugnant, scientifically unethical, socially immoral.
And along the way I haven’t been shy about making my ongoing criticisms of Times coverage, including Alan Schwarz’s, well known to the principals.
The most important football story coming down the pike is being developed by independent journalists, far from the Times/ESPN “Outside the Lines”/Yahoo fraternity: Precisely when and why did the American Academy of Pediatrics reverse its 1957 policy statement that tackle football was not a safe youth activity? For those of us who seek to hasten the downsizing of the football industry to something a little closer to national sanity, this is a far more important thread than the celebrated, but wheel-spinning, journalism on this or that rather obvious NFL doctoring of high-level research on its multimillion-dollar adult talent.