As part of his February 28 article, “NFL Deaths Reflect Inept Care and Record-Keeping,” http://fourwallspublishing.com/BlogMChaney/?p=578, journalist and author Matt Chaney interviewed Irvin Muchnick. The full Q&A text is below.
CONCUSSION INC.: The End of Football As We Know It is available, in either book or Kindle ebook form, at http://amzn.to/1yQNPXY. For the $19.95 list price, you also can order an autographed copy with free shipping in the U.S., by sending a check or money order to Irvin Muchnick, P.O. Box 9629, Berkeley, CA 94709, or remitting that amount via PayPal to email@example.com. (Canadian orders, add $12.00 US for shipping. All other foreign orders, add $20.00 US for shipping.)
In an email Q&A for ChaneysBlog, Muchnick addresses football problems and more, notably his current co-investigation, with independent journalist Tim Joyce, of sexual assault in U.S. Swimming:
Discuss your new book, the circumstances drawing you into the football issues by 2010.
Basically, it went like this: In late 2009 my book on the Chris Benoit murder-suicide came out. The book immediately got inserted into the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Connecticut between Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon. Blumenthal is a liar who claimed military service “in Vietnam,” when in fact he had a cushy stateside Reserves stint during the Vietnam War. McMahon is the wife of Vince McMahon and the former CEO of WWE. She poured $50 million of their wealth from this publicly traded company into the failed race against Blumenthal, and $50 million more into another failed Senate race two years later, against Chris Murphy. Such sterling choices in our democracy!
Alerted by the fine early work on football by Alan Schwarz in the New York Times, and aware that I had a unique perspective on and reportorial resources for the concussion crisis story, I waded in, and by late 2011 I had “rebranded” my blog, naming it Concussion Inc. I answered only to a crazy boss: me.
Benoit had been the first CTE study announced in 2007 by Chris Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute and Center for the Study of CTE in Boston. (The Benoit study was done by Dr. Bennet Omalu — now coming to the silver screen, but back then being written out of the story not just by the NFL but also by Schwarz, Nowinski, and Dr. Robert Cantu, the Northeast Gold Dust Trio.) Chris Benoit’s father and now my good friend, Mike Benoit, had insisted throughout my research for Chris & Nancy that I was underplaying brain disease and overplaying drugs and other generic explanations for his family’s tragedy, and I came to see how right he was.
From there, all the connections flowed—principally Dr. Joe Maroon of UPMC … and WWE, and the NFL, and anti-aging huckerism, and the goofy hype for resveratrol supplements, and his proximity (at minimum) to the steroid/HGH abuse on the multiple-champion Steelers.
There was no major publisher market for the book I was writing, so like the late Red Smith, I undertook my “daily spelling lesson” at what I jokingly call ConcussionInc.net LLP. The topics and the obsessions were spontaneous responses to the news of 2011-12-13. My main narrative interest was in exposing the interlocking ecosystem of problems and commercial “solutions.” I hope that readers come away convinced that safe tackling, better helmets, better mousetraps are the filtered cigarettes of the 21st century. I credit a little-known fellow native Missouri writer by the name of Chaney with a game-changing insight on how state “concussion awareness” laws are not just bullshit, but jiu-jitsu bullshit— magically creating new private profit centers from the public trough, principally our public high schools.
Along the way, I jousted a couple of times with Bob Costas, an acquaintance-friend from the St. Louis sports mafia. The book collects and reorganizes all this material the way books are supposed to do: to put the author over.
In all seriousness, there’s some stuff there that I’m very proud of. No other journalist has gone deep with the story of Dave Duerson’s role on NFL-NFLPA disability benefits board. No one else has called out the Congress of Neurological Surgeons for giving Roger Goodell a standing ovation before his lame speech at their convention. No one else documented how the Centers for Disease Control accepted unprecedented private funding from the NFL for the federal government’s “concussion education campaign,” or how the National Institutes of Health helped Maroon and his cronies develop their phony, for-profit ImPACT program, to the tune of millions in research subsidies.
What is “public football”?
There is an answer, perhaps not as flip as it sounds, that all of football is truly “public” football—up through and including the NFL, a phony nonprofit that gets municipal subsidies for stadiums (plus other things). This situation will probably get worse before it gets better; as I said, the industry has both the CDC and the NIH in its pocket. I expect that within a few years the Super Bowl will be coordinated with the Presidents’ Weekend national holiday: the regular season and playoff schedule will have expanded yet again, so that fans don’t have to go to work the Monday after the game.
The thrust of what we mean by public football, however, is taxpayer-funded programs at the professional sport’s feeder levels. I say go ahead and allow all the fools who want their sons to play club and private school football. But let’s get our public school systems out of it. “Death of football” ideology is wishful thinking, but with new levels of “awareness” of traumatic brain injury—and with the failed prevention costs and litigation flowing from that awareness—the goal of stamping out public football in this targeted way is achievable.
Furthering this point, you’ve been characterized as bent on banning football. But isn’t that a simplistic view of, or strategic response to, your argument in the debate?
I’m not out to ban football. Prohibition of just about anything is too blunt an instrument. It’s not fair to the zealous and it doesn’t work.
But adult statecraft involves more than simply rambling about personal choice. I find it amusing that many of those who accuse people with my viewpoint of “having an agenda” are blind to their own as they grasp at commercial rearguard initiatives, such as helmet technology, more “professional” coaching of kids, or tail-chasing Zackery Lystedt state laws. We don’t ban boxing, but it has a somewhat saner footprint on our culture than it used to have. We don’t ban tobacco, but cigarette marketing is curtailed and kids are protected.
Last rejoinder to this straw-man argument: I refuse to play the game of having to prove my bona fides before I can join the football debate. Put your guns down and let’s talk about football as an activity, not as a religion. I’m not an expert—thank God. But it’s better to have common sense than no sense at all.
Compare the “blogosphere” with traditional daily news media, when it comes to reporting and analyzing public issues in sport.
Let’s stipulate that new media and mainstream media types are simply blaring their bugles from different formations of the same march of human folly. I know that, minus the filter of an editor, I’ve shown my own ass plenty of times. It doesn’t matter if the public learns the truth about football from me or the New York Times or Professor Hieronymus Buttocks. And if Schwarz hadn’t started doing what he was doing in 2007, you and I are not even having this conversation today.
But did Schwarz and the Times take anything close to the number of shots downfield they should have? Give me a break. When Schwarz wrote about his buddy Nowinski getting a $1 million NFL grant, the story all but giggled like a schoolgirl. After Omalu fell out with Cantu, Schwarz basically blacked the former out of coverage, while quoting the latter in the venture-capital hype for Xenith, a space-age helmet company. In his account of the fed investigation of Riddell’s promotional claims, Schwarz treated the lying Joe Maroon with kid gloves. Schwarz’s takeout disclaimer on the death of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chris Henry was cringeworthy; the Times quoted NFL’s latest consulting face, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, to the effect that sometimes bad behavior is just bad behavior, and Schwarz reminded readers that nice white quarterbacks, like Steve Young and Troy Aikman, who also had sustained concussions, were not “broadcasting from C-block.”
Eventually Schwarz became associate producer of a documentary funded by the billionaire developer of the King-Devick Concussion Test.
I don’t want anyone to think I’m picking on Schwarz. Jim Litke, the national sports columnist for the Associated Press, has done some great stuff on how Roger Goodell co-opted Mommy sports bloggers with cornball clinics on “safe tackling.” But AP analysis of how state Lystedt Laws “lack bite”—thank you very much—is just playing “gotcha.” Nowhere do I see a single passage about how these laws were designed, in the first place, to offload football industry liability onto the public sector.
In an age of rampant advertorial, you’re daft if you don’t acknowledge that bloggers, social media, what have you, can be a useful check and balance.
Discuss your co-investigative series with Tim Joyce on sexual predator coaches and athletes in USA Swimming.
Swimming is the right next book in several respects. Because it’s a niche sport, Tim and I have more of the field to ourselves (though outlets like ESPN, of course, which for the most part ignore the story, do manage to “big foot” us from time to time).
Just as a large segment of our boy population is getting systematically brained in football, disturbing numbers of girls are getting raped at all rungs of our Olympic sports system. As with concussions, we are less interested in being designated cops than in following the money. The profiteers of so-called amateur sports and the nonprofits of “Child Abuse Inc.” play defense much faster than the public realizes or perhaps cares.
But to get down to business: 400,000 kids, 12,000 coaches — you don’t need an advanced degree in statistical analysis in order to extrapolate from the scores of known and under-reported cases; to factor in the forms of denial and cover-up; and to conclude that this is, bar none, the largest-scale molestation narrative outside the Catholic Church. It makes Penn State look like a garden party by comparison.
The hardest part to explain is that every institution has its own sick dynamic. In swimming, it’s not willy-nilly opportunistic pedophiles. Rather, there is a unique power imbalance. Most often it’s a 30-something male coach and an early or mid-teens star girl swimmer, who is emerging from the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and is desperate for adult approval, college scholarship, Olympic glory. Parents are asleep at the switch; they are totally invested until something bad happens to their own kid.
The rippling societal costs, in terms of life-long cases of eating disorders, substance abuse, and broken relationships and families, are incalculable. Yet all we see above ground is NBC’s feel-good patriotic package for a fortnight every leap year summer.
With the Rio Games upcoming, Tim and I are going deep with the story of Brazilian national Alex Pussieldi, who is the Rowdy Gaines of swimming coverage on the country’s SporTV network. Two years ago Pussieldi fled South Florida, where he had gotten his start in American coaching under the recently deceased Hall of Famer Jack Nelson, whom Diana Nyad credibly accuses of molesting her for years at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. In the course of reviewing thousands upon thousands of pages of discovery documents USA Swimming tried to suppress, Tim and I told the full story of the cover-up by that organization, as well as local police, city government, and the Sun Sentinel newspaper, of Pussieldi’s 2004 physical assault and Peeping Tom practices against a Mexican boy who was swimming and being boarded by him. Pussieldi was a major creep and international human trafficker, and his rise to prominence was aided by former USA Swimming president and conflicts-crazed consultant Dale Neuburger, who steers contracts with foreign national teams to coaches like Michael Phelps’ guy, Bob Bowman. Neuburger also was an architect of swimming’s scam offshore insurance subsidiary, the “United States Sports Insurance Co.” in Barbados. ESPN’s Outside the Lines still won’t tell its viewers, but all this is under investigation by the FBI and the Government Accountability Office.
The swimming scandal is monumental with much yet to uncover and untold victims in need of light. So it doesn’t sound like you’re returning to football analysis anytime soon, not in your former diligence that produced the new book.
That is correct. The football follies are now out there for all to see and interpret. Geez, our friend Bennet Omalu is about to be portrayed by Will Smith. I’ll continue to comment on a connection or two as we move along–and of course I reserve the right to change my mind–but the focus of my energy is swimming and Rio ’16.
For what may be called the “genuine iconoclast” writer in sports issues, it appears there’s often little competition on reporting a problem, however terrible, because few media are willing to probe and pay the price to do so. Correct?
Yeah, no doubt I’m a little bit nuts, and I don’t have the excuse of having played football. Maybe I should have gone straight and gotten a real job, but it’s way too late for that. My name is on a Supreme Court case involving writers’ rights in new media, and Concussion Inc. is my third book, and I’m proud of those things. They’re not rewarding financially, but they’re rewarding.