ON THE CONCUSSION BEAT

By Murray Chass

March 31, 2011

On the eve of the opening of the 2011 baseball season, management and labor demonstrated anew how remarkably harmonious their relationship has become. Without fanfare, without a hint that it was coming, without Congress or any other body or individual urging them to do something, the commissioner’s office and the players’ union announced Tuesday a way of dealing with concussions.Alan Schwarz 225

Besides developing a regimen for teams and players to follow in the event of a concussion or suspected concussion, they even created a new disabled list, a 7-day disabled list, for teams to take time to evaluate players with head injuries.

The only thing they didn’t do was give the new list an appropriate name: the Alan Schwarz disabled list.

Schwarz’s name should be attached to the list because he singlehandedly has created the coverage of concussions in all sports. His has been the most remarkable feat in sports journalism history.

Baseball writers are credited with creating the save and the quality start. Those are merely tinsel hanging from the massive oak tree of baseball compared with what Schwarz has done.

Even more, he has done it for all sports and all levels of sports, from pee wee leaguers on up. When you read about what any sport is doing about concussions and other head injuries, think Alan Schwarz. No one paid any attention to those injuries before he began writing about them.

And give credit to Major League Baseball and its union for confronting the problem without being dragged kicking and screaming into doing something, as the National Football League had to be.

When Schwarz began reporting about the effects of head injuries on players, active and retired, some of whom were driven to suicide, the N.F.L., in effect, said “Who, us? Not our sport.”

Baseball did not respond by immersing itself in denial. After some players, including Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins and Jason Bay of the New York Mets, suffered concussions last season, members of management and labor got together this off-season and worked out a program for dealing with concussions.

“It’s an instance of collective bargaining working the way it should,” said Michael Weiner,” head of the players’ union. “There were discussions throughout the last month about it involving medical people and lawyers on both sides. We also got players involved; there was a lot of input from the players. When we have an issue of safety and player health the parties should turn their attention to it and pretty quickly.”

John Golfinos 225That the two sides were serious about devising a plan was obvious from the doctors who served on the five-man committee that formulated the plan. One of the doctors, John Golfinos, chairman of the neurosurgery department at New York University Medical Center, is someone with whom I have had personal experience and know what an outstanding doctor he is.

Weiner, however, acknowledged that no one would be talking about concussions if it weren’t for Schwarz’s reporting.

Schwarz, 43 years old, was strictly a baseball writer until he became immersed in concussions early in 2007. He hasn’t recovered. But concussions gained him a job with The New York Times, which is an unlikely story in itself.

Chris Nowinski, a former wrestler and Harvard football player, brought the evils of injury-induced brain trauma to Schwarz’s attention through a mutual friend, Ken Leiker, a former baseball writer. Nowinski had experienced brain trauma and had written a book about its dangers. Schwarz had read the manuscript and was perhaps the only person who took it seriously.

“I was blown away by it,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday after finishing his jury duty in New York for the day. “His manuscript was great, very well done. I thought it deserved to be published.”

His reaction to the book is why Nowinski went to Schwarz with the story of Andre Water’s suicide in 2006 at the age of 44. Waters was a former N,F.L. player whose death, as well as his change in personality, mystified family and friends.

In reporting the strange suicide once he had the go-ahead from the Times, Schwarz found Dr. Bennet Omalu, a University of Pittsburgh neuropathologist, who had studied Waters’ brain tissue, concluded that Waters had suffered brain damage during his football-playing days that led to depression and his death.

Dr. Omalu, a leading expert in forensic pathology told Schwarz that Waters had the brain tissue of an 85-year-old man with early-stage Alzheimer’s, the result of multiple concussions.

Before beginning to work on the story in earnest, Schwarz sought an outlet for it. Having worked for the Times on a freelance basis, primarily writing columns on baseball statistics, about which he had also written a book, Schwarz took what he had to the Times’ sports editor, Tom Jolly, setting up a meeting for him and Nowinski.

“I immediately recognized this as a pretty big story even though I was a baseball guy,” Schwarz said. “I had a contract with ESPN and was doing some ‘Keeping Score’ columns for the Times,” Schwarz related. “I called Tom and explained it to him.”

Eager to do the Waters story, Schwarz said, he nevertheless didn’t ignore his baseball responsibilities. “At the end of the meeting with Tom,” he said, “I ran to the Waldorf because Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn were doing their Hall of Fame press conferences.”

Before he left the Times that day, though, Schwarz said, “I told Tom if you have to have a staff person handle this, I understand. He said, no, it’s your story. You do it.”

Schwarz’s concussion story was so big it made an impression on Jolly, who as sports editor had squandered what had been a strong sports news operation. Jolly and news didn’t seem to belong in the same discussion.

At times some of us who worked there and witnessed the withering news coverage thought it would have been appropriate to name the sports section the Nostalgia News.

One alarming example: The Times conceded the Balco/Barry Bonds steroids investigation to other newspapers, most notably the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News.

About a year after I switched from baseball reporting to writing baseball columns, I reminded Jolly that he hadn’t replaced me as the national baseball writer. He acknowledged that he realized that but said, “We’re discussing it.” “They” apparently kept talking and did nothing. That was not a case of no news being good news.

But Schwarz, to his great credit, jolted Jolly with his concussion story, and the Times has been alone with it ever since.

Immediately after the Waters story ran, Schwarz produced another.

“A few days later,” Schwarz said, “Ted Johnson of the New England Patriots called and told me about his experience. I didn’t know what this was going to be.”Ted Johnson 225

Johnson’s story, Schwarz said, “required a lot of conversation and reporting. I broke away from all of my baseball responsibilities. Fortunately, it was January. I did that story. It ran two days before the Super Bowl, which is the day the commissioner does his press conference.”

Johnson, Schwarz said, had terrible post-concussion symptoms and said Coach Bill Belichick coerced him into playing with a concussion. Schwarz wrote story No. 2 of what has become, he estimated, an archive of 130 to 140 articles.

“After that all hell broke loose,” he said. “It was an incredibly big deal. It wasn’t only a football cultural problem but millions of kids play football so it was a public health issue.”

I said something to Schwarz about having created the concussion beat. He disagreed.

“Reporters don’t create beats,” he said. “Editors create beats. The editors chose to let this happen, and they hired me and created a full spot for me to pursue this. I would choose to say I justified the beat with my work.”

Schwarz is entitled to think what he wants about that matter, but make no mistake. He created the beat, and the editors gratefully accepted his creation.

In 2008 the Times nominated Schwarz for a Pulitzer Prize. Even before I knew he had been nominated, I said he should win it, but he didn’t. I said the same thing last year when he was nominated a second time, but again the Pulitzer ignored a worthy winner.

If the third time is really a charm, he will be announced a winner in a few weeks. He should win not only for the uniqueness of his reporting but also for the service he has performed for football players of all ages.

And now he has performed that service for the players who play the sport he really loves.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.