Below is the reprint of an interview originally published June 21 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coaching-concussions-careers-culture-john-m-o-connor?trk=mp-reader-card.
Coaching, Concussions, Careers + Culture
by John M. O’Connor
In the United States and around the world, we can all agree on one thing — sports are big, and it’s a huge business. Many of my clients over the years and some of the top performers I meet in professional environments were or are athletes, their children are athletes, and even more call themselves sports fans. The side of sports that we love is well documented and well worth it: teamwork, camaraderie, healthy competition, sportsmanship, physical fitness, communication, etc. The dark side of sports? Concussions, bad coaches, injuries, unreal expectations. It’s out there. We see it but it seems to be an anomaly for most of us a majority of the time. But it is not. We are all connected to this universal solvent of society throughout our lives and our careers.
The positive experiences we gain through our involvement with sports often stay with us our entire lives. Athletes can motivate and give us hope, and sports can do a lot to uplift communities. Stories of a para-olympic athlete overcoming adversity or an exceptional kid with special needs mean so much. But I have also seen the downside of sports which includes parents chasing their dreams through their children, changing jobs unnecessarily, pursuing unrealistic goals for college or the pros, and more. I have had professional athletes in my office with memory issues, arthritis, and other ailments post career. I have interviewed MMA fighters and world champs. I admit it. I am sports guy. I love the madness in many ways. But I am also a father, a career-focused leader and someone who looks to the other side of the sports-mad society we belong to today. How has it and how will it affect those I love and the clients I have and will serve?
According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit that advises the government on public health issues, as many as 2 million concussions occur from sports or play activities among U.S. children and teens each year, and a large number of them receive no treatment. Do egregious, negative issues in sports and coaching really affect our families and careers? They do.
Who is taking a tough, non-popular point of view on sports and coaches, and who is providing a much-needed perspective on concussions and the relationship between sports and society in the world of journalism? There are a couple of shows, a few sobering documentaries produced by ESPN and a handful of others scattered across the internet. But it’s hard to find a voice that is consistently tough on the industry of sports.
I have found one. Irvin Muchnick is author, most recently, of CONCUSSION INC: The End of Football As We Know It — his third book. He is a widely published journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, People, and many other major magazines and newspapers. He has been interviewed on forums as diverse as Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Over the last four years, Irv’s work has helped elevate the story of widespread traumatic brain injury and its consequences for National Football League players and other professional and amateur athletes.
Here is my interview with author and social commentator Irv Muchnick:
John M. O’Connor: You have detailed and pursued egregious issues in coaching, concussions, and sports. How would you define a great coach?
Irv Muchnick: I would start by not obsessing so much over the question. I think the cult of the coach is a big part of what’s wrong with youth sports culture, and contributes mightily to the most undercovered story in our sports-mad society: coach sexual abuse of underage athletes. Look — I know good coaches are golden. I had some when I was a kid, and no one is implying that the vast majority of people who go into this field don’t do so for the right reasons. But the same could be said for good teachers in the classroom, or music instrument mentors who imbue young people with passion and discipline. From my reporting on this subject, I can’t help believing that all the mythology surrounding coaches plays into the overeagerness of “the adults in the room” to outsource their own parenting.
John M. O’Connor: So many people’s lives intersect with sports as a participants, parents, and adults. How do we make sure sports benefit us our whole lives regardless of whether we become professionally associated with them?
Irv Muchnick: That is a very hard one, for the reason that there seems to be no such thing as amateur sports any more. There are only high-revenue sports and wannabe high-revenue sports. Look at the activity on which I focus so much of my journalistic energy: age-group swimming. This is nothing less than a staple of Americana, involving 400,000 kids and 12,000 coaches, practically 52 weeks a year. And it’s a mostly volunteer local operation. But at the top there are high stakes — sponsors, Olympic glory, college scholarships, all the brass-ring fantasy stuff that drives the organizational function even though those things are in reach of under one percent of the participants. Here’s the worst part: Notwithstanding swimming’s large footprint — and in particular the horrible personal and societal costs of widespread sexual abuse — there is almost no scrutiny … because, you know, this is only a minor sport, a “niche” sport, who cares? Whatever happens in between Michael Phelps’ quadrennial feel-good Olympics prime-time package on NBC, and his drunk-driving arrests, doesn’t count.
There’s just way too much money and celebrity shadowing what start out as programs for teaching kids basic skills of becoming comfortable with their bodies, following rules, learning teamwork, etc. Now, I don’t suggest that bringing sanity to this system is easy, but one thing I’ll never buy is the commonly embraced idea that we simply need to distribute more equitably the monetization of anything and everything. Dan Wetzel, a good columnist for Yahoo Sports, advocates paying the squirts who get exploited for ESPN and ABC programming of the Little League World Series, on the theory that someone else is making money off the spectacle anyway. I don’t consider that a healthy fix.
John M. O’Connor: What needs to be done to improve coaching in swimming (or really any other sport right now) for those of us who still have kids under 18 and want the best for them?
Irv Muchnick: One of two things has to happen, in my view, with the governance of youth programs in the Olympic sports. One option is what many other countries have: a real, official government sports ministry. In a piece of American exceptionalism, we have the Amateur Sports Act, and it’s vague. It was promulgated before we were nearly as aware as we now are of the challenges of sexual abuse in the Title IX era. The sports act is way overdue for an overhaul that would add toothful oversight and accountability. If we’re going to have a crazy quilt of disparate 501(c)(3) nonprofit fiefdoms under the the umbrella of the ultra-commercial U.S. Olympic Committee, then let’s at least mandate that they have true “national sport governing body” jurisdiction — including explicit responsibility to expose and ban abusers throughout their sports, at YMCA’s and other institutions, not just within the four walls of their own often manipulated club sport membership rolls.
The other option would be to decouple Olympic-track programs from basic recreational and instructional programs altogether. I think the worst bad guy in today’s U.S. swimming leadership is John Leonard, long-time chief of the American Swimming Coaches Association. He makes the point, and this is not a twisted quote, that ASCA has no direct relationship to children. Could you imagine the American Academy of Pediatrics asserting that it is a professional association of doctors with no direct relationship to children? Kids comprise, I don’t know, 90 percent of the aquatics industry.
John M. O’Connor: It concerns me that it’s just so expected that kids and adults need to get used to concussions which of course affects their lives and careers later in life. You have documented the dark side of this in professional wrestling, football, MMA and more. What should we do to change things in this country right now to create a healthier sports world? Is it even possible?
Irv Muchnick: From my perspective, the traumatic brain injury crisis is the male pole of the same dynamic that leaves so many adolescent female athletes vulnerable to sexual abuse. I say this while remaining respectful of research establishing that concussions are a serious problem in more than just the most obvious sports, and that, for whatever physiological reason, the syndrome seems to impact girls and women disproportionately. I don’t deny the importance of safety measures in girls’ soccer — eliminate heading the ball at young ages, and all that. It’s just that I find that the larger conversation tends to distract from the intuitive, existential, and frankly long-known long-term consequences of concussive and sub-concussive blows, more or less on every play of every game, in football.
So I say, let the numbskulls who want their sons in this activity — either for professional ambition or simply to conform to some archaic model of the manly man — pursue it in private clubs. Let’s get the enormous, but hidden, subsidies of our public school systems out of the football racket. And with the elimination of what can only be called “the football mystique,” let’s drive down the exorbitant toll on public health, as well as on, many of us suspect, violent crime and workforce productivity.
Universal health care and gun control aren’t the only missing American reforms. Another is a full-fledged Mothers Against Drunk Football movement.
John M. O’Connor: Describe your career choices as a journalist. You have gone up and fought some of our most popular institutions on tough issues. Is this worth the fight for you and what is the state of your journalism career in this country?
It’s been an odd career. As a conventional newspaper and magazine writer, my success was mixed, to put it generously. I just didn’t seem to have the hagiographic writing chops or the corporate political skills to make it in institutional journalism.
But I’m having a fine old time in my late career, thanks to the Internet and self-publishing tools. Every day I wake up believing I have the best job in the country. As Archimedes put it, I have a “place to stand.” I answer only to a single crazy boss: me.
John M. O’Connor: How dangerous is it for our nation to be so consumed with and willing to tolerate some of the unhealthy, caustic, and dangerous things that we do in sports?
Earlier I hinted at crime and productivity. I don’t know of a rigorous academic study supporting this critique. Then again, I’m not a big one on rigorous academic studies. I see myself as an investigative reporter and a multi-disciplinary social critic.
I think we could use a Mothers Against Drunk Football movement, big-time. Beyond that, anyone with eyes can see how our consumption of spectacle helped lead to the demagogue who is the presumptive presidential nominee of a major party. For my money, the tyranny of all sports, all the time, is a form of late-empire decay, and I don’t mean as an Edward Gibbon literary allusion. It is a phenomenon playing out right in front of us, tragically, in real time.
John M. O’Connor is a career strategist, author, and speaker. His company is CareerPro Inc. (http://careerproinc.com/).