Timeline of Alan Schwarz of The New York Times – Associate Producer of ‘Head Games’ Documentary Funded by King-Devick Concussion Test Developer

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May 19, 2012
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May 23, 2012

At least until the next USA Swimming coach gets arrested, I can pick up on a theme we started hitting right after Junior Seau’s suicide: the rising popularity of flag football for little kids, as parents finally wake up to the long-term damage being wrought by the tackle game.

But first, some historical perspective on the work of Alan Schwarz of The New York Times, and why I’m pounding him so hard for his corrupt involvement in the Steve James movie of the Chris Nowinski book Head Games – which just so happens to be a marketing ploy for billionaire film funder Steve Devick’s sideline concussion test.

“Misinformed and careless criticism pisses me off,” Schwarz emailed me on May 27, 2011. Schwarz was reacting to my post the day before in which I had compared his relationship with Nowinski to that of the co-authors of the bestselling book Freakonomics. (These co-authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, had started out as, respectively, subject and author of a profile in The New York Times Magazine.)

The Freaknomics analogy “is incorrect, misleading and borderline offensive,” Schwarz complained, since Levitt and Dubner “are collaborators and business partners, and make no bones about it. Your strong implication that Chris and I are either of those two things is something I recommend you correct.”

Actually, at the time I was criticizing Nowinski and Schwarz only for their shameless self-promotion. A year later, I think the evidence shows that Schwarz’s defense against a charge I hadn’t directly made “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

In Head Games: The Film, Schwarz clearly does stand as a conflicted collaborator – while generally basking in well-deserved praise for how he turned traumatic brain injury in contact sports into an A1 story, and while specifically continuing to write concussion news articles at The Times.

As for that praise … It seems to be another thing that “pisses” Schwarz, according to sources in the concussion world: he’s mad that he hasn’t gotten more of it.

Schwarz is a talented writer who, in phase 1 of the concussion story, displayed an admirable facility for communicating in Timesese. Beyond that, two observations have formed about him during my own reporting.

The first is that he is cagey. Though ever willing to take a victory lap for his foundational investigations when he interacts with other media, Schwarz repeatedly refuses to assist in the most elementary interpretations of his own work. Except for citing himself, he appears not to believe that public lessons are part of his job description.

My other observation about Schwarz – handed down from others – is that he is angry. Angry over not winning that Pulitzer Prize. Angry that The Times didn’t back him more. Angry that, instead of getting a raise and a continuing high-asset concussion beat, he was shuffled into an ill-defined role, which has evolved from “national education correspondent” to “enterprise reporter.”

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the quality of Schwarz’s work. Nor do I think it comes as a shock to anyone that breakthrough coverage at The Times is a function of numerous factors, including office politics and driving personal ambition. By the same standard, I don’t expect Chris Nowinski to take a vow of chastity and poverty; if his Harvard pedigree, WWE clips, and apple cheeks helped him take “concussion awareness” to a new level, that is an overall good thing.

But it is also a limited thing. And if, in 2012, Schwarz and Nowinski’s (and Dr. Robert Cantu’s) collective or separate ambitions translate into resting on their laurels, cashing out, or promoting lazy or wrongheaded or self-interested commercial solutions, then they deserve to be called out for that. They have made themselves into the story, and I am covering them on that basis.

***

So let’s go over it one more time.

In my reading, there have been three distinct phases of Schwarz/Times concussion coverage.

The first, 2007-08, was superb. Schwarz latched onto chronic traumatic encephalopathy findings of dead athletes – Pittsburgh Steelers players, WWE’s Chris Benoit, others – and ran with them. The onion was peeled back on the National Football League’s captive and mendacious research on brain injuries. Retired commissioner Paul Tagliabue went into hiding; current commissioner Roger Goodell went on the defensive. The process culminated in excellent 2009-10 hearings by the House Judiciary Committee.

Why Alan Schwarz wasn’t awarded the Pulitzer for that, I have no idea.

The second phase, 2010-11, became troubling. The Nowinski-Cantu Boston group started taking NFL money, and Schwarz wrote about that development as if glorious consensus had been achieved in the higher councils of the ruling class. Concussion awareness! Zackery Lystedt Laws! A vigilant commissioner taking on unrepentant, violence-addicted players!

Meanwhile, two doctors – Bennet Omalu, who had conducted the pioneering CTE studies, and Julian Bailes – had broken away from the Boston group in disputes over ego and direction. Schwarz ignored them … and anyone else with perspectives dissenting from the neatly packaged “bold solutions” endorsed by the NFL-backed Center for the Study of CTE and its sister Sports Legacy Institute.

Which brings us to today and … what? Alan Schwarz is a mascot associate producer for what I expect not to be the strongest of the football concussion documentaries in the pipeline. His employer, The Times, is enabling this conflict of interest and, even more importantly, not moving the ball downfield one bit.

Schwarz claims he brought the kid football helmet industry to its knees. I say, don’t buy the hype. Helmet manufacturers are a low level of the problem, and the investigation of them by the Senate Commerce Committee – stocked with members beholden to the NFL and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center lobbies – has been both anemic and distracting.

OK, this huge story stepped on the toes of some powerful people – we get it. But think about it for a minute, folks. When David Halberstam was recalled from Vietnam by Times editors after he infuriated the generals in the early sixties, he was replaced by other reporters, and a renewed commitment to inform the American people on the inner workings of an ill-conceived war. Where are similar resources at the Newspaper of Record for what the Steve James film dubs “the public health story of our time”?

 

Irv Muchnick

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