How to report (and not report) on CTE


My friend Eric alerted me to David Maraniss’ great piece in the most recent New York Review of Books.

In it, Maraniss writes:

[Former NFL player] Lew Carpenter’s brain reinforced what leading neuroscientists now believe—that it is not severe concussions so much as the repetitive subconcussive blows that football players endure over a career that are more often the cause, the toll of thousands of collisions and jarring movements that shake the brain inside the skull. This calls into question whether the NFL’s concussion protocols and changes in rules can fix things. As Susan Margulies, a concussion expert at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to Charlie Rose, no helmet has been devised that can “effectively reduce the rotational acceleration, that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.”

This week, Bill Pennington, the New York Times’ excellent long-time football writer, wrote at length about the tragic death, at age 27, of Tyler Sash, a former University of Iowa star who was on the roster of the 2011 New York Giants team that won Super Bowl 46. Sash had displayed increasingly erratic behavior in the years before he committed suicide, in September of 2015. Earlier this week, his family announced that his brain had been examined posthumously, and CTE was confirmed to be present.

Pennington writes:

Experts believe that less severe blows to the head — those not strong enough to cause a concussion — also significantly contribute to the damage that results in C.T.E. These lesser traumas are especially troubling, neurologists say, because they happen frequently in contact sports like football but go undiagnosed.

The problem here is that Pennington has buried what should, increasingly, be the lead in reporting about CTE and players found to have it. That paragraph appears about two-thirds of the way down a nearly 1500-word article.

The significance in emphasis, highlighted by Maraniss, is this: the NFL likes to focus, in its public relations efforts, on the reduction in concussions among NFL players since the league began instituting stricter protocols for clearing concussed players. The league has been touting, for example, a 35% reduction over a three year period, and that data point has received a tremendous amount of attention.

While reducing concussions is not a bad thing, of course, it’s quite possible that doing so will have little effect on the long-term health of the players who suit up. Highlights of spectacular hits inescapably dominate the news cycle, as do slumped over, woozy players staggering off the field.

But reporters need to be more attentive to story lines that, while attention-grabbing, might distract from the more insidious dangers football may pose to its participants.




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