Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Heads Up, Part I: Media Responsibility

(This is the first part of a three-part, three-day series on concussions. See a list of links to some of my previous writing on concussions here.)

Concussions have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately, which is great to see. For far too long, they've been the dirty little secret of sports. As fans, we love to sit in arenas or stadiums and watch violent hits, but we don't often like to think about the consequences of such entertainment. There's a good reason Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator called out Don Cherry last week; Cherry's certainly not the only one to blame, but he has promoted hard-hitting hockey and fights for years, has consistently taken stands against any kind of headshot ban, and makes plenty of money from his "Rock Em, Sock Em" video line, featuring the most violent hockey moments and plenty of head shots. Of course, Cherry completely missed the point in his Coach's Corner, saying he had nothing to say to Tator and was not to blame;

Of course, Cherry's far from the only one at fault. Our entire sports culture, especially in football and hockey, is rooted in the set of macho ideals Cherry frequently espouses. There's continual speeches about toughness and playing through pain, regardless of the long-term consequences. Part of this is from a lack of education about the severity of head injuries and how they differ from the standard sort of injuries. From an early age, players are taught to "tough it out" and "be a man", so it's hardly a surprise that they continue that behaviour when they get to the pro ranks. In fact, even with all the recent information about the long-term effects of concussions, we still get incidents like the recent one where Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver Hines Ward called out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for not playing a week after suffering a concussion.

The media treatment of concussions plays a crucial role in how players, coaches and fans see them. Scientific research on the subject is critical, but it doesn't mean anything if the word doesn't get out to those actually involved in sports. We've known of some of the dangers of concussions for decades (see William Nack's excellent Sports Illustrated piece "The Wrecking Yard" from 2001 for one example, but there hasn't been a lot of media coverage of head injuries until the past few years. This isn't necessarily all the fault of the media; most outlets and reporters are working on tight, day-to-day deadlines and don't have the time for the kind of long investigations often needed for concussion pieces.

Additionally, beat reporters writing about individual games generally have to rely on what quotes they can get. Even if they notice a potential concussion during the game, it's frequently difficult to get players or coaches to talk about it, especially as there's a (often well-justified) fear out there that admitting to a head injury will make you a target for future hits. Gare Joyce, an excellent hockey writer (I reviewed his book Future Greats and Heartbreaks way back when, and heartily recommend it), wrote a great column for Sportsnet.ca today about the difficulties involved in reporting concussions (and mentioned my Queen's Journal piece on Alyn McCauley to boot); it's well worth a read.

The state of discourse on concussions in the sports media is a long way from where it was, but there's still work to do. One key example came last week, when Dallas Cowboys' linebacker DeMarcus Ware was stretchered off the field on Sunday, Dec. 13 with a neck injury, but came back and played a crucial role six days later in the Cowboys' win over the New Orleans Saints Saturday. Ware played well, but it's very questionable if he should have been involved in that game, and that should have received a lot of attention and coverage from the media. The whole process that saw Ware cleared to play deserves substantial scrutiny, but it didn't receive much; instead, most of the coverage saw Ware lauded as a hero for his performance, with little discussion of how he was cleared to play. According to an AP pre-game piece, Ware didn't have concussion symptoms, but given how fragile the head and the neck are, resting him would have made a lot of sense.

The problem isn't necessarily that Ware was cleared to play; I could understand that if the NFL media had looked into it a bit more and reported how his neck injury didn't threaten further damage. If it really wasn't that severe and there was no evidence of any kind of concussion, that should have been clearly laid out, with full explanations of why Ware's injury was an exception to the NFL's recent moves towards having players sit out after head injuries. The problem is how little attention Ware's clearance to play got, and how many people praised his play without questioning if he should have been in the game at all. That's only going to encourage the play-through-pain culture, especially at the lower levels. Even if Ware's injury wasn't that severe, how many minor football or hockey players will watch his performance and then demand to play a week after suffering a head injury of their own, and how many coaches will let them?

Like it or not, professional athletes are role models to many young athletes, especially when they display the kind of toughness and machismo we often glorify. It's important for us in the sports media to make head injuries a consistent issue. We need to get the message out there that these injuries are a serious threat, and playing through them isn't always the way to go.

The media can have a substantial effect, especially with consistent pressure. After far too long, the NFL has finally gotten rid of its resident head-injury deniers, largely thanks to ongoing media pressure that led to a congressional investigation, and the league is making progress on many fronts. Randy Starkman of The Toronto Star has done some great work on concussions in hockey, especially with this 2007 series. Another key moment on the NHL front was the extensive media coverage of the recent revelation that former NHL star Reggie Fleming had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a concussion-linked disease that had previously been found in football players and boxers, but never hockey players. Concussions have become an issue at the league level recently, and that's a good step.

It's especially worth discussing concussions in leagues where they aren't yet a prominent issue, such as in Canadian and American university sports and women's sports. As Alan Schwarz reported in a 2007 New York Times piece, girls suffer concussions even more frequently than boys in many sports. A lot of those concussions take place in sports like soccer and basketball, not traditionally renowned for being hard-hitting. Another area where concussions only recently hit the radar screen is the CFL; Vicki Hall of the Calgary Herald did several great pieces on concussions during Grey Cup Week and turned the league's concussion policies into a significant issue.

These are all small steps, but we are making progress. Leagues, coaches and players at all levels are starting to realize the serious nature of head injuries, and that's a great thing. There are other steps that they can take to help deal with the problem, and I'll be covering a couple of those in the coming days. On the media side, though, the most important thing we can do is make sure that concussions remain a significant issue. We can't afford to let them slip off the radar screen, and we need to keep asking the tough questions about team policies and player injuries. Hopefully, some athletes and coaches will read or watch something on concussions, educate themselves on the dangers involved and behave more safely as a result. There's a great opportunity here for the sports media to actually do something positive for the games that we cover by keeping this issue alive and pushing for real, significant change. Let's not let that opportunity go to waste.

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