New York Times Concussion Coverage Remains Sparse, Opaque, Mysterious

Published April 27th, 2012, Uncategorized

Though I’m as capable of snark as the next jackass, yesterday’s post on the nearly two-year-long New York Times blackout of the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu was written more in sorrow than in anger. At this moment in the national concussion crisis, the still-clueless public could use the kind of sharp investigation and cogent analysis that can be provided only by our leading newspaper and unofficial house organ of the ruling class. Unfortunately, we’re not getting it.

As readers here know, I long ago tired of the cliché that Alan Schwarz, who did a great thing when he put football concussions on the front pages in 2007-08, is some kind of civic treasure. In 2012, he’s more like a floating mascot of indeterminate journalistic orientation.

Reasonable people can disagree about such details, but in my reckoning the last time Schwarz moved the needle on the beat he created was in February of last year, when he devoted some space to the idea that a just output of Dave Duerson’s suicide might include a Labor Department audit of the Bell/Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan, on whose board Duerson had sat, incompetently and erratically.

Not long after that, Schwarz called it quits as the Times concussion guy. For all I know, he was publishing the very best and hardest-hitting stuff he could get past the editors. Also for all I know, he got pushed out unfairly. What I know for sure is that we are about to enter Year 2 of Schwarz’s victory lap media tour – and it’s a crashing bore and, more important, stuck in his own past glories and altogether unhelpful to the crystallizing future debate on traumatic brain injury.

Last summer The Times gave Schwarz the new title of National Education Reporter, but in that capacity he did precious little national education reporting. At intervals, he would pop up in media spots – a discussion with Buzz Bissinger on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (in which neither producer nor co-panelist was even aware that he had left the concussion beat months earlier), or a web interview for Britain’s Economist, or a cameo at Bob Costas’s NFL town hall meeting during Super Bowl week on the NBC Sports cable network.

Now, according to Schwarz’s Twitter profile, he is a Times “enterprise” reporter. So I hope there’s some enterprise still emanating from 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, whether the source is Schwarz or other reporters. (Schwarz did not respond to an email query.)

Will Times consumers continue to gorge on reactive coverage of Bountygate; boilerplate pro retiree litigation; peer-reviewed studies of chronic traumatic encephalopathy autopsies 501 through 999; scapegoating of penny-ante helmet manufacturers; and press releases for the flow of the capital markets to cover the legal exposure and public relations headaches of the NFL’s $10 billion global takeover?

Or will there be, instead, some examination of public health:

  • the non-lowballed toll of catastrophic football injuries on educational achievement, workforce productivity, and criminal indices
  • the mounting bills at our public high schools for litigation and tail-chasing “prevention”
  • clearly articulated advice that systematic head-ramming is not for amateur kids no matter how obsessed their parents are with it
  • scrutiny of such NFL bought-and-paid-for institutions as the Senate Commerce Committee, the Centers for Disease Control, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

As one of those people who “expect the world” from The Times, I hope we’ll soon get it for the concussion story.

 

Irv Muchnick