Canadian Concussion Doc Blasts Cantu for ‘Thin Science’ in Rick Martin Hype

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For most of 2011, I’ve been pointing out that the celebrity dead athlete press release mode of the Boston University concussion group headed by Chris Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu had an expired shelf life.

Deadspin made the same point, gently, last week. And in a story in last Friday’s Toronto Star, neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator went further: he openly accused the Boston advocates and researchers of “grandstanding” in their aggressive promotion of the chronic traumatic encephalopathy findings of the late hockey player Rick Martin.


In an interview with the Star’s Randy Starkman, Tator called the Martin case “poorly documented, “incomplete,” and “fragmented.” Noting that the Center for the Study of CTE found the athlete had “stage 2” of the disease – in contrast with more progressive stages in others – Tator said that it was not responsible of Nowinski to claim that Martin would have developed dementia had he not sustained his fatal heart attack at 59.

Once again, readers – I am not the world’s authority on concussions. But along the way I’ve picked up a thing or two about how the national concussion narrative is being marketed to the masses. Enough to know that Nowinski and Cantu are seriously screwing things up these days with their fetish for “peer-reviewed science,” a petard on which Tator has hoisted them.

This m.o. may serve Cantu and Nowinski’s institutional funders, but for a sports-crazed society, all it adds up to is brain studies ad infinitum. This is the public health equivalent of talking loudly and carrying a small stick.

It’s distressing to report that, even as the Boston people roll out more studies, their advocacy is restrained to the point of self-contradiction. They buy into the “changing the safety culture of football” palaver and the bland, state-by-state, and cost-ineffective “concussion awareness” measures which are all the rage, thanks to the lobbying might and diversionary skills of the National Football League (which, not incidentally, gifted Boston University to the tune of $1 million).

The process approached farce last month when Cantu, priming the pump for a new book, seemed to recommend that young athletes not play tackle football in a local television interview, before hair-splittingly taking it back on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

Meanwhile, Nowinski’s sister Sports Legacy Institute offers no support for the living CTE community and no holistic vision of football’s proper place in the American education system – only sound bites whose significance has been lapped by events and levels of understanding set in motion by its own work years ago.

With regard to dead hockey players, I emphasized in a Toronto radio interview on September 1, following the suicide of Wade Belak, that the key is not whether they got into a lot of highlight-reel fights. (You can listen to the interview at Nowinski could have been saying the same thing, from his much larger and more persuasive platform, if he weren’t so shackled to the message of hyping every new-and-improved research breakthrough.

Now, with Rick Martin, that message is in danger of going off the rails.


Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick