HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ Breaks Major Story of Massachusetts Mayor’s Proposal to Ban Youth Football — Buried Inside More About the Successes and Failures of ‘Safe’ Tackling

Flashback: CTE Detection Venture Capital Quest Helps Explain What Went Haywire at Bennet Omalu Foundation
November 26, 2016
VICE Sports With a One-Two Punch on the Lunacy of High School Football
November 30, 2016

by Irvin Muchnick


Amidst the usual journalistic and rhetorical curlicues of a mainstream media outlet when it comes to confronting King Football, the latest edition of HBO’s Real Sports includes a real breakthrough in the debate over the sport’s future:

Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, is proposing a ban on youth football on public property — that is, below the high school level.

When all the history is written, mark Mayor Curtatone as someone destined to go down like the former mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom (now California’s lieutenant governor), who in 2004 cut through the legal logjam over same-sex marriages by authorizing them in his city with the stroke of a pen.

I wish I could go on to heap unalloyed praise on Real Sports, but I can’t, because it buried its own lead. Yes, reporter Bernard Goldberg did take a significant step in the right direction of coverage of the football issue. And props to Boston-based researcher Dr. Ann McKee and advocate Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation for saying most of the right things.

Unfortunately, Goldberg and his producer embedded what deserved to be a standalone message deep inside yet another sentimental narrative of an isolated youth football death in Anywheresville, USA. Along the way, we had to slog through the false equivalency of additional he-said-he-said fog on the latest incremental and disingenuous rule and procedural measures. Goldberg’s coda, in studio with anchor Bryant Gumbel, warmed over yet again what has become unhelpfully familiar reflection, to the tune that it is the national culture wars, not the failure of the football-junkie media to persist with facts, that are impeding serious consideration of the death and decimation plaguing the unpaid, uninformed, and non-consenting sub-National Football League levels of the sport.

(As for Dr. Julian Bailes of Pop Warner Football, who is not seen in this report, he rationalizes everything with the astounding post-factual claim that there have been “no reported deaths” in youth football. Bailes’ sidekick Dr. Bennet Omalu, hero of the movie Concussion, himself last week folded like a cheap umbrella the do-nothing foundation in his name that he and Bailes, and their Hollywood cronies, had started last year at the University of Pittsburgh.)

Concussion Inc. is of the belief that we should be far past the point where investigative journalism pushes further study of the failures of “safe” football for kids. Rather, we are at the point where Real Sports and others must unapologetically challenge down to zero the squishy interest of America’s sports parents in sending their children off to slaughter on the public-health dime. It didn’t take a hundred years after the surgeon general’s 1964 report on the dangers of tobacco before there was an end to television commercials for cigarettes.

All that said, Real Sports did lay out all the pieces. Let’s unpack them:

  1. Ben Hamm, 16, died in 2015, from a second-impact (or third- or umpteenth-impact) blow on the field in Oklahoma — throwing his father, part-time minister Steve Hamm, into equal measures of grief and confusion over his instinctual and longstanding support of football. Ben’s was one of 17 deaths in high school football in the last three years.
  2. Terry O’Neil, former NFL producer at CBS and ABC, and father of a youth player who sustained two major concussions, has embarked on an educational campaign at youth football conventions.
  3. USA Football’s NFL-underwritten “Heads Up” program, which emphasizes better blocking and tackling technique and suggested hit limits in practices, is a $45 million crock pot. In the real time of football competition, which rewards intimidation — not tentativeness or safety — Heads Up is anatomically impossible. Moreover, a youth coach featured in the HBO report, John Collins in San Antonio, is only one example of coaches across the country who beat the living crap out of their kids in practice every day and can’t even recite the supposed USAF restrictions on hitting, which anyway are just toothless recommendations. A study shows that the Heads Up program has had no impact on traumatic brain injuries — this after USAF loudly and publicly lied, claiming that “preliminary findings” had established improvements.
  4. Good guys exist. For example, Buddy Teevens, head coach at Dartmouth University, now has no hitting in practice, ever. (Only in games, of course.)
  5. The McKee-Nowinski team at the Concussion Legacy Foundation argue persuasively that the equivalent of hitting kids over the head hundreds or thousands of times is bad, very bad. The more hitting, the more damage. The less hitting, the less damage. CLF wants to ban football for the estimated two and a half million who play the sport before high school.
  6. Mayor Curtatone tells HBO, exclusively, that he wants no more youth football in his town. He has joined the issue and is prepared to take political heat.
  7. Host Gumbel asks reporter Goldberg why none of this seems to be sinking in. Goldberg theorizes that parents, especially in the midwest and south, don’t want to be told what they should and shouldn’t allow their kids to do.

Our comments:

Ben Hamm’s death is an unspeakable family tragedy — but also at this point, in all unsentimentality, a tired trope of concussion-crisis reporting. Now … A sustained marathon, going deep with the stories of all 17 recent high school football fatalities: that would be something different, taking the powerful elements of the television medium and lifting viewers’ consciousness past its Trumpian attention span and into recognition of football’s ongoing, cumulative damage. Alas, such a story-telling device also would be outside the paint-by-numbers formula of the TV magazine format.

The punch line for the Hamm family undermines the story’s avowed purpose. Moving forward, all the grieving father commits to is standing on the sidelines and closely monitoring the safety of Ben’s former team, so that the same thing doesn’t happen to other kids. So you say safety standards are insufficient? Then let’s just add a dash of vigilante supervision and play on. If the producer’s intent here was irony, that could have been so stated in the script. But in media death exploitation, it’s always easier to have it both ways with casual viewers. Uplifting endings are especially nice.

Bully for Terry O’Neil. But when will the Real Sportses of future-of-football reflection start diversifying their voices beyond the pseudo-repentant? Voices like John Gerdy, the former collegiate sports star and administrator who now campaigns for increased school funding for music programs? (“You just can’t put lipstick on a pigskin,” Gerdy says.)

With all respect to Buddy Teevens and his no-tackle laboratory at Dartmouth, the Ivy League is college football-lite and everyone knows it. I’m not as impressed as others by pointy-headed paradigm tinkerers. Even zero practice hits still yield many game hits. Hit-count solutions could slow football’s public health toll but they could not eliminate its systematic nature. That is why I believe they distract from the age-and-consent lines that are at the problem’s philosophical core.

Nice job, Gumbel, Goldberg, et al. Next time, consider putting on top what’s truly new — Mayor Curtatane — the way they teach it in communication school. And take some risks with your insider bona fides.

Comments are closed.

Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick