Friday, June 3, 2011

Chris Nowinski, New York Times’ Alan Schwarz, and the Freakonomicization of Concussions

[posted 5/26/11 to]

Chris Nowinski has done valuable work on the concussion crisis in sports. That work is also limited and flawed.

He is the subject of a profile in today’s edition of the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper of his alma mater, at Clearly and deservedly, Crimson reporters Emily Rutter and Scott A. Sherman take note of Nowinski’s value. They may not realize that the Old Ivy orientation of their account also reveals his limitations and flaws.

The story has it all: Nowinski’s Harvard and football pedigree; his fascination with and employment by World Wrestling Entertainment – which led to his debilitating, career-ending concussions; and his decision to write a book about brain trauma in sports and start the Sports Legacy Institute.

The revealing passage, from my perspective, was this:

With the help of Alan Schwarz, at the time a freelance sportswriter for the New York Times, he got in touch with publishers.

“I thought his manuscript was great,” says Schwarz, who had written one book on baseball statistics and was working on another.

As I reflect on what I find both inspiring and dissatisfying about Nowinski’s career advocacy, the (obviously indispensable) Schwarz/Times connection is instructive. It reminds me very much of the phenomenon surrounding Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, a 2005 bestseller by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

For my money, Freakonomics is a pedestrian book, but my opinion doesn’t matter. In any case, I’m more interested in the process of its creation. Freakonomics grew out of a profile of Levitt by Dubner in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times. The two Steves then decided to collaborate on a book. And get this: The epigraph of every chapter of the book wound up being a quote from Dubner’s Times Magazine profile of Levitt.

Talk about a hall of mirrors!

I wish Nowinski the very best, both with his brave personal battle to survive post-concussion syndrome, and his likely as-yet-undiagnosed own case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and with his campaign to spread the word about and temper the brutality of football and other sports.

However, with respect to the latter, I also observe that his voice is skewed, at times even muted, by his ready access to the resources of both our Newspaper of Record and the National Football League (the latter thanks to a $1 million NFL grant to the Sports Legacy Institute’s sister Center for the Study of CTE at Boston University Medical School). You can see it in the increased corporatization of SLI’s message and in the current carefully adumbrated coverage by The Times of football helmet safety and promotion. So much more remains unsaid: the accounting for the tobacco-level scandal of NFL-branded research over the last generation, and the structural solutions we must be devising as a society, outside of willy-nilly litigation on behalf of the many lives ruined and prematurely ended by this system.

Above all, I’m convinced, there is a need for more than just Chris Nowinski’s voice on this critical issue.

Irv Muchnick

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