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Media Fumbles Football CTE Crisis

football-cteBy Tony Palmeri

In December, a terrible New York train wreck killed four people and injured 63 others. The National Transportation Safety Board immediately announced an investigation. Governor Cuomo consoled the victims’ families and pledged that the train operator would be held accountable if found negligent. The mainstream media diligently looked into previous incidents at the crash site as well as the accident record of Metro-North railroad. Even Metro-North officials appeared cooperative. The response so far looks to be a good example of Civics 101: government, railroad management, media, and the public at-large working together to soothe those in pain, identify the problems that caused the derailment, and hopefully solve them.

Imagine if the press response to the train tragedy was to minimize the responsibility of Metro-North. Suppose instead of investigating they went to the surviving victims and asked something like this: “So, if you had to do it all over again, do you think you would have gotten on that train?” Or what if they queried the public at-large: “Now that you know there’s a dangerous curve on that track with a history of accidents, would you let your children ride that train?” We would see those questions at best as missing the point.

What does this have to do with the National Football League? Lots.

In October, PBS broadcast “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The film is based on the reporting of Steve Fainaru (Pulitzer Prize for Iraq War reporting) and Mark Fainaru-Wada (broke the Barry Bonds/steroids story). They released a book of the same name. That football players suffer long term health problems is not news, though American culture remains in deep “please don’t force me to think about anything that could ruin my Sunday Funday” denial about it.

What’s new in the film is the extent to which the NFL, very much like the tobacco industry undermining the link between smoking and cancer, worked hard to discredit the science proving the connection between concussions and the brain disease (CTE). Two scientists featured in the film, Dr. Bennet Omalu and Dr. Ann McKee (originally from Appleton), recount the shock they experienced as NFL execs not only disputed their research findings but even threatened their careers. Dr. Omalu is quoted as saying, “CTE has dragged me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you. I really, sincerely wished it didn’t cross my path of life, seriously.”

CTE is the most troubling sign of an NFL train wreck that’s been a long time in the making. Greedy train company operators (i.e. owners), many chugging along rapidly on taxpayer subsidized tracks (i.e. expensive stadiums), refusing to be held accountable meaningfully for derailing the lives of accident victims (i.e. the players). Not wanting to go too far in upsetting a multibillion dollar industry, the corporate press fails to treat football and CTE as a civic matter that implicates ALL of us, not just players who choose to take the risks on the field and the parents who struggle with the decision of whether or not to let their sons play Pop Warner.

The Gannett Corporation’s local reporting after the PBS special is typical of what we are seeing nationwide. In an October 18 story, the reporter quotes an Appleton pediatrician whose 9 year old son plays football. He’s also identified as an Affinity Health System doctor who runs a sports concussion clinic. He says, “Certainly, I’m concerned about my son getting injured and (other) kids getting injured . . . But every sport has inherent risks with it. It’s up to each family to balance that risk with the potential benefits of the sport such as physical fitness, self-esteem and teamwork.” Given the source’s credentials, a conflicted parent might feel better about saying yes to football. Missing are opinions of scientists like Dr. Robert Cantu, colleague of Dr. McKee, that no youth under 14 should be playing tackle football. Dr. McKee herself, when asked in the PBS special if she would let her hypothetical 8, 10, and 12 year old children play football, said unequivocally, “No. They would not.”

In a lengthy November 23 story, “Will head injuries be death knell for football?,” the fate of football is placed in the hands of parents. A featured source is Dr. Jennifer Weibel, a concussion specialist with the Appleton-based Osteopathic Medicine and Physical Therapy Group who leads the ImPact baseline testing program for the Appleton Area School District. She believes that “right now, youth football is a safe sport.” Her view was never contrasted with other medical professionals, leading readers to believe that youth football is in fact safe or that the danger of it has not been established sufficiently.

Civics 101 and plain common decency holds that if we see a train wreck taking place, we’re responsible for doing something even if we don’t know anyone on the train. Regarding the NFL, part of the solution must be for all of us who enjoy the game to stop being willfully blind about the consequences of what we see on the field. Public awareness prevents the NFL from sweeping the problem under the rug, which an enabling corporate media seems all too ready to let them do.

Tony Palmeri (tony@tonypalmeri.com) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.

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