Thoughts on Why Cantu-Nowinski ‘Conflicts’ Are Wrong Focus in the Current Traumatic Brain Injury Debate

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As an equal-opportunity offender, I get that ESPN’s Outside the Lines, PBS’s Frontline, and their Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada want to raise new questions in the discussion of chronic traumatic encephelopathy and the voluminous and consolidated lawsuits by retired players against the National Football League for concealing known science on brain injuries.

But I feel the Fainarus have strayed off-course with their league-enabling focus on the alleged conflicts of interest of Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski. (See “Researchers consulted with law firms,” At a time when the public interest demands a push forward, these reporters have participated in what I think is a weaselly piece of pushback.

Context is everything. I blasted the Boston University Center for the Study of CTE (and, by de facto extension, Nowinski’s affiliated Sports Legacy Institute) for accepting a $1 million grant from the NFL in 2010. This could have compromised, and in my view did compromise, their public statements over the next couple of years. It also affected the vitality of the work of The New York Times‘ Alan Schwarz, whose valuable early reporting on Nowinski and Cantu’s advocacy sputtered into congratulations to the NFL for its “no strings” donation to his pals.

Even less forgivably, Schwarz’s supposedly rhetoric-free analysis of the issue lapsed into elitist sarcasm toward the less enlightened. The classic example was when he dismissed the conversation following the bizarre death of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chris Henry with this sniff: “[I]f concussions turned every player felonious, Troy Aikman and Steve Young would be broadcasting games from C-block. Many players later found with CTE managed not to commit crimes.”

When I learned that Cantu had played footsies with the Xenith helmet company, I criticized him for that.

And when Cantu, Nowinski, and Schwarz participated in the making of a film adaptation of Nowinski’s book Head Games, directed by the celebrated documentary filmmaker Steve James, I expressed uneasiness (to put it mildly) over its undisclosed underwriting by the billionaire developer of the “King-Devick” sideline concussion test. I was especially hard on associate producer Schwarz, whom The Times had allowed to continue reporting on concussions without telling readers about his role in and profits from this outside project.

But we’re now in April 2013, and nipping at Cantu and Nowinski’s heels is a poor use of the Fainaru brothers’ resources. As the NFL’s grant to the Boston group ran out and the league and its collusive players’ union moved on to co-opting much bigger game with many more zeroes at the ends of their checks — the federal Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health, and Harvard University (which alone reeled in $100 million for featherbedded, open-ended, and largely redundant research) — Cantu and Nowinski have found their independent voices again. With something like unforked tongue, Cantu calls for the end of tackle football before age 14. Nowinski articulates the folly of gambling further with kids’ lives while awaiting “more” — always it’s just a little bit more — corroborating evidence on the public health consequences of football’s intrinsic high-speed head- and body-banging.

Yes, there are lawyers who have jumped into this new category of litigation for the money, and both plaintiffs and defendants are lining up experts and paying for their time and testimony. Shocker!

If you want to talk hard-core conflicts, however, look no further than the truly industry-dependent yaks on the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee. Like Dr. Mitchel S. Berger — the doc who leveled the allegations against Cantu and Nowinski, which ESPN-Frontline proceeded to transcribe at unproductive length.

Later today at Concussion Inc.: Comprehensive links to our archival coverage of Dr. Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski


Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick