How the Cult of Experts and Professionalization Is Killing Our Kids (Part 2, The Boston Football Hit-Count Proposal)

Cantu and Nowinski Play It Safe – In the Wrong Ways (Part 1, The Boston Football Hit-Count Proposal)
February 7, 2012
No Answers to My Questions – Unasked by CNN – On ‘Concussion Awareness’
February 9, 2012

[PREVIOUSLY: “Cantu and Nowinski Play It Safe – In the Wrong Ways (Part 1, the Boston Football Hit-Count Proposal),”]

Yesterday’s post had a mental typo: I meant to say “Little League World Series,” not “College World Series.” I’ve made the correction, which was probably apparent to readers in context. It’s also a good starting point for the second half of my comments on the Dr. Robert Cantu-Chris Nowinski Sports Legacy Institute “Hit Count” White Paper.

Last summer Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, a really good overall columnist, made an odd proposal that I find sadly characteristic of the state of our culture, in which there is no demarcation between adults and children – and in which, as a consequence, adults are expected to behave like children and children like adults. “Pay the Little League World Series players,” Wetzel wrote at Don’t protect ’em. Just pay ’em. It’s the American way.

With somewhat less caricature, the same dynamic infuses the debate over paying athletes in the so-called college revenue sports. As I’ve shown blog readers earlier, I wrote a supportive article about this issue for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2003, years before Taylor Branch came along to brand it and Joe Nocera to backstop it. (And by no means do I claim to be the first.) I’m bothered, though, by the breezy confidence with which our leading voices – Branch, Nocera, Wetzel, all of them – seem to believe that giving a fair share to young people who are professional athletes in all but name will solve the American sports problem. For the American sports problem, as I see it, is that it is a perpetual growth industry: Fun and Character Building With a Pitchfork.

It would be nice if President Obama – for whom I voted once and will vote again – projected a vision more profound than eliminating the Bowl Championship Series and instituting a genuine national college football playoff system. But in our country, at our stage of decay, presidents don’t do that sort of thing any more.

What does all this have to do with concussions and the Cantu-Nowinski White Paper, you ask? Plenty.

I’m all for having coaches who have some idea of what they’re teaching, and I’m all for having safety guidelines and background checks. (One of these days I’ll tell you about my daughter’s USA Club Swimming coach, who turned out to be one of the many across the country later ID’d as child rapists.) But we’re doing this sports thing backwards. Professionals and Olympians might set the dream bar for our kids, but they shouldn’t be setting the standards for the youth sports industry. That’s the job of the rest of us: the parents. Yet, time and again, we are seeing the consensus of the football concussion debate reduced to a game of gotcha with the National Football League – as if the stupidity of Michael Vick’s and Troy Polamalu’s and Colt McCoy’s health care matters because it “sets a bad example.”

It matters, all right – but it matters because the NFL, which pays out a few dozen short-term multimillion-dollar contracts to its hired help, is so blatantly pulling the strings anywhere and everywhere, from the Congress of Neurological Surgeons (which gave NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a standing ovation last year) to the Senate Commerce Committee (which scapegoats helmet manufacturers while providing lookaway passes to every other culpable party) to the Centers for Disease Control (which accepted unprecedented private funding from the NFL for “concussion education” efforts).

Meanwhile, the NFL-coopted Cantu and Nowinski are playing right along with hit counts, politically calculated silence about the expensive awfulness that is Dr. Joseph Maroon’s ImPACT “concussion management system,” and state-by-state “Zack Lystedt Laws,” which push the costs of concussion awareness on public schools instead of embracing responsible age restrictions and demanding that the tobacco-esque NFL pick up its considerable share of the public health tab.

This mutual massaging of the leading players in Concussion Inc. is not, in the end, about the kids; it’s about the cottage industries and self-congratulation created around gestures for the kids. Alan Schwarz of The New York Times, a math whiz, gets to brag about his ability to sight-read a spreadsheet of casualty stats — the nerd meets the jocksniffer. Nowinski, who combines a Harvard education with WWE camera presence, gets to synergize with fellow alum Vincent Ferrara’s space-age helmet company, Xenith LLC, which promises to take football equipment to the life-imitates-art heights of Rollerball.

(Notice in the White Paper where they foresee calibrating the “total force” on young-uns’ noggins as soon as “the technology is available.” And take a gander at the very first post on this blog to use the term Concussion Inc., months before the blog was even so named: “Concussion Inc.: CTE Expert Robert Cantu Has Confused Relationship With Xenith Helmet Company,” March 8, 2011,

Even the best-intentioned children’s advocates have it backwards. We don’t need to be dedicating disproportionate capital to the best and the brightest so that they can reinvent football’s answer to the better mousetrap. We need to be exercising common sense – summoning the political will to take this bloodsport back where it belongs, several notches below a national obsession.


Which leads to my promised peroration on football and the Ivy League and Teddy Roosevelt. It is now a cliché of the concussion discussion that the sport has gone through this kind of thing before, and TR stepped in and saved it from itself, and it’s happening again today. To that analogy I say, not so fast.

A hundred years ago the Ivy League was both the spiritual and the financial center of the football universe. There was no NFL, no television, no $10-billion-a-year marketing juggernaut. Lads from Harvard brawled on the gridiron with lads from Yale. These representatives of the ruling class used the manly man’s arts, with all their good qualities and all their pretense, to polish their resumes for destinies on Wall Street and elsewhere. In that environment, containing death and disability was achievable.

But that is no longer the case, in my view, and not just because athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, and therefore more menacing to each others’ lives and limbs. Football long ago graduated from the Ivy hothouse to the too-much-is-never-enough demands of turbo-charged capitalism. Friday Night Lights dramatizes how football has lost its cultural homogeneity, as well, and become a willy-nilly brass ring, a lottery ticket, a vehicle to greater things for all the classes.

Except, of course, when it’s not.


Irv Muchnick

For complete info on our ebooks – DUERSON (November 2011), UPMC: Concussion Scandal Ground Zero (January 2012), and George Visger’s OUT OF MY HEAD: My Life In and Out of Football (February 2012) – see

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick