New York Times’ Alan Schwarz Resurfaces in NPR Concussion Dialogue

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September 19, 2011

On September 8, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation with Neal Conan featured a discussion of the concussion issue by guests Alan Schwarz of The New York Times and Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights. The audio and transcript are at http://www.npr.org/2011/09/08/140297255/nfl-season-kicks-off-with-new-safety-rules?sc=emaf.

It’s an excellent dialogue, though also an incomplete one from my perspective. In addition, it provides some important interpretation by Schwarz of his ground-breaking and, unfortunately, now past-tense coverage. (See “New York Times’ Alan Schwarz Moves From Concussion Beat to National Education Reporter — Promotion or Exile?”, August 2, https://concussioninc.net/?p=4344, and “Alan Schwarz: Why I’m No Longer Writing About Concussions in The New York Times,” August 2, https://concussioninc.net/?p=4354.)

Schwarz and Bissinger trade topping each other with the points that define the debate over the future of football. Schwarz gets to the heart of the unacceptable risks of traumatic brain injuries for pre-legal consent amateurs, and even the impossible real-world task of helmets in protecting against them. Often he does so with quite a bit more clarity than he achieved in his published news reports and analyses.

Bissinger, I think, effectively presses Schwarz on the bottom-line futility of changing football rules to address the problem. (Bissinger comes to a different conclusion than I do on whether the upshot is that tackle football should continue to be part of the public high school agenda – let alone its 900-pound gorilla.)

Now, back to Schwarz and what I have found so inadequate about The New York Times on concussions. Or was, before The Times moved Schwarz to the position of national education reporter and became just another pack outlet on a story he and they had made.

It’s a shame so much of Schwarz’s intelligence is used for caginess instead of communication. For example, on the subject of the spate of lawsuits against the National Football League, he says on NPR, “I think the question is, you know, what did you know, and when did you know it? And that’s very debatable. I think those of us who have spent a long time studying not only the evidence but the history of the unfolding of the evidence, there’s a point at which it becomes reasonable to think that the employer should have told the employees. However, a lot of people want that to start a lot earlier than I think is reasonable. So we’ll see. It’s for a jury and a judge to decide.”

That is certainly one hermetically impenetrable way to put it. But is an underlined disclaimer about how the lawyers are going to slug it out, while we all sit back and watch, the most illuminating way? In my own interview on a Toronto radio station the very day the first of these lawsuits became news, I acknowledged that the specifics of that case needed more scrutiny. But I also emphasized that litigation, this one and others, collectively and inevitably, would drive the public’s better understanding of the NFL’s responsibility for a tobacco-like public health tab. (Hear it at http://www.youtube.com/wrestlingbabylon#p/a/u/1/hrXZLpKvAAQ.)

This is the difference between someone employed by The New York Times and someone employed by himself.

Generally speaking, Schwarz devotes a lot of verbiage to his skepticism about the strongest claims of the links between football and traumatic brain injury. I think it’s mostly a matter of style – but again, at a point the style becomes less about projecting credibility than about being disengaged and unhelpful. He says on NPR, “I think all we were certainly trying to do at The New York Times was give people the information, whether they were professionals or the parents of kids, on which to base their decisions of whether to take a risk – that particular risk or not. They can take whatever risks they want. We don’t care.”

Well, I for one care which risks are undertaken – by the parents of other kids as well as my own – in heavily funded and promoted activities run by the gatekeepers of our educational system. Because those risks will affect all of us in maintaining national mental hygiene and a civil society.

 

Irv Muchnick

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