Tag Archives: football

Concussion-related trauma masquerades as ALS

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The New York TimesAlan Schwarz reports on what he says is “the first firm pathological indications that brain trauma results in motor-neuron degeneration.” The headline behind that conclusion, of course, is that researchers say some  athletes with concussion and impact-induced brain injuries may have been misdiagnosed as ALS victims.


Photo by peterjr1961 via Flickr

In interviews, the study’s authors even speculate that Lou Gherig, who gave the disease its popular name, may have instead suffered from a similar disease caused in part by brain injuries.

The finding was not unexpected, given that ALS seemed to occur at much higher rates in concussion-heavy populations like athletes and soldiers.

Schwarz’s summary of the study:

Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A.L.S. indicate that those men did not have A.L.S. at all. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussionlike trauma, that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways.

It’s in the emergence of that second disease that really seems to have attracted Schwarz’ attention. It behaves similarly to ALS, but shows a distinct protein pattern that only seemed to emerge in patients with a history of head injury. There is not, however, a 1:1 relationship. Other factors seem to also be at play, Schwarz writes.

Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview.org examines the story more closely and concludes that, while this is an “important and fascinating area of research,” the story “did not exhibit the best of health/medical/science journalism.” He lists seven points of criticism and includes comments from one of the site’s medical editors.

John Gever of MedPage Today offers more scientific coverage of the study and points out that there was no mention of Gehrig in the study but that “a New York Times reporter coaxed McKee into suggesting that Gehrig may have been among those misdiagnosed – even though, as a first baseman, he did not routinely experience violent collisions. (He was, however, beaned at least twice during his 14-year career with the New York Yankees.)”

NFL to post concussion warning in locker rooms

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In The New York Times, football concussion reporter Alan Schwarz examines the content and ramifications of a new warning poster the NFL will be putting in every locker room. An image of the poster can be seen here.

high school tackle

Photo by Eagle102.net via Flickr

The poster lists symptoms that players should look out for, including headaches, confusion, memory problems and feeling more emotional, and warns them not to ignore symptoms.

In addition to strictly medical information — including the most starkly worded warnings yet from the league — the poster reminds players that concussions can also have long-term negative impacts on their families and on the health of those youngsters who idolize pro athletes.

Greg Aiello, a league spokesman, said in an e-mail message that the poster, spearheaded by the league’s new head, neck and spine medical committee and written in collaboration with the players union and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “is intended to present the most current and objective medical information on concussions and will be distributed to the players and clubs in the near future.”

Attention focuses on football’s neurological effects

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, writing in Time, looks at two things he claims are being overlooked during the most recent uproar over football injuries: High school athletes and spinal injuries. Bissinger has strong opinions and two anecdotes, one of which includes a source who said that roughly two Texas high school football players suffer catastrophic spinal injuries each year.

Photo by julio cesar via Flickr.

Bissinger praises Alan Schwarz’ work on concussions at The New York Times, but openly doubts whether the advances Schwarz is helping force at the professional level will ever translate to high school.

I know the focus will not trickle down to where it is needed most: the high school level. Research has shown that young players are far more susceptible than older ones to serious injuries. …

There should be an ambulance at every high school game. There should be trainers. But don’t bet on it, as school districts cry a lack of money. Kids will continue to suffer serious head injuries. Kids will continue to become paralyzed because they never learned how to properly tackle, with their heads up. The game’s violence will continue because that’s exactly why we like it, our gladiatorial lust still intact 16 centuries after the Romans. The bigger the hit, the greater the roar.

Not a new concern

In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Deborah Blum, a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, writes about a warning published in The Journal of the American Medical Association that said the medical profession can no longer ignore that “There is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages” in a report about professional athletes.”

But what really makes the research and its conclusions so interesting is its timing: it appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association on Oct. 13, 1928. This raises the question – at least for me – as to why we are announcing the athlete concussion-dementia link as a new, and still somewhat debatable, issue some 80 years later.

House Judiciary forum

Watch a video webcast of the Feb. 1 “House Judiciary Committee Forum on Head Injuries and Other Sports Injuries in Youth, High School, College and Professional Football,” or read about Republican’s reluctance to hold said forum in Houston.

Dan Rather report

Dan Rather’s latest investigative effort was a far-reaching look at concussions and football, with emphasis on both the high school and professional games. He frames it as part of the pre-Super Bowl concussion awareness push (PDF Transcript).

ESPN to air ‘Head Games’

ESPN reporter Greg Garber, on “Outside the Lines,” will look at the issue of concussions and the NFL at 8 a.m. ET on Sunday. Harold Donald Carson, a former linebacker and inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “has become one of the leading spokesmen for the NFL’s retired players. Passionate and eloquent, he is in some ways the league’s conscience on the subject.”

Carson, who played 13 seasons for the New York Giants, estimates he suffered about a dozen concussions during his career, but none of them were documented. While he believes concussions among former football players will escalate into an epidemic, Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers’ neurosurgeon for nearly three decades and a member of the NFL’s concussion committee for the past three years, disputes that:

“Because we know that there are millions of high school kids, college kids, youth leagues, as well as other who play football annually, I think we are not seeing the epidemic at that level people are speculating about,” Maroon said.


NYT’s Schwarz discusses football concussion beat

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

For the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham talked to The New York Times‘ Alan Schwarz about his work as the nation’s leading (and probably only) full-time football head injury reporter. Schwarz, whose work covering concussions brought him to the Times in 2007, talks about how he got started on the beat and how his work has impacted the sport as a whole.

It’s all interesting stuff, especially when he discusses how his background in mathematics has helped him report on sports injuries and medicine, but the real payoff comes when Cunningham finally  gets Schwarz to divulge his personal stance on concussions in youth football. It’s a crystallization of all Schwarz has learned, as well as a delicate balancing act between his personal and professional ethics.

high school tackle

Photo by Eagle102.net via Flickr

CJR: Let’s assume for a minute that your son, who you said is three years old, is actually ten years old and he is clamoring to play Pop Warner football. Would the fact that you would then have to decide disqualify you from covering the story?

Schwarz: No, it wouldn’t disqualify me, though of course that’s up to my editors. But there is something about working here—and I’m not saying we’re better than everyone else, blah, blah, blah—but there is something that really inspires you to do the right thing, and to do the thing that helps you to cultivate the trust that allows readers to take you seriously. So I would probably let him play because if I didn’t it would compromise the reporting. It would compromise the trust that others and even the league may have in me. Now, I would not send him out to slaughter, but getting one concussion is not that big of a deal—it just isn’t. And to suggest otherwise is incredibly irresponsible. So if my kid gets one concussion then yeah, he doesn’t play anymore probably. But to not allow him on the field is, frankly, an overreaction. And if I didn’t allow him to play then yeah, it would be harder to cover the story, if only in my own mind. I believe that the cost to others of my not being able to cover this story as well would be greater than the cost of my kid getting one concussion and never playing again. I’m a very mathematical guy. I follow certain precepts. And those are the things that make sense to me. And I can’t tell my kid he can’t play, because then what am I going to tell the league? What am I going to tell my editors? It doesn’t work. It’s dissonant.


House holds hearing on brain injuries in NFL

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The House of Representatives is holding a hearing on “Legal Issues Relating to Football Head Injuries” that is being webcast on C-SPAN.org.

The witness list includes NFL commissioner Roger S. Goodell as well as the director of the players association, team executives, doctors, neurologists, retired players, families of former players and safety advocates.


The New York Times: NFL Data Reinforces Dementia Links

NCAA doesn’t monitor painkiller use

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Gene Sapakoff of the Charleston, S.C. Post and Courier reports that while the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference went to the mat this summer over bagel quality in relation to an “ACC rules proposal seeking to specify ‘that an institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels to student-athletes at any time,'” collegiate sports’ governing body doesn’t have any system in place to track or regulate the injections and painkillers given on a regular basis to many student-athletes.


Photo by Monica’s Dad via Flickr

…the NCAA wouldn’t know if a South Carolina or Clemson player received one Toradol shot or 30 last week, or if a given school under its wide jurisdiction was refilling infamously addictive OxyContin and Vicodin prescriptions by the shovelful.

“The NCAA does not monitor that from a national standpoint,” said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA’s Associate Director of Health and Safety. “That is left to the institutions and also left to those professional and legal and ethical regulatory bodies that folks in those fields operate under.”

The NCAA sources Sapakoff consulted said that monitoring painkillers and other drugs given to student-athletes, while a good idea, would be a “gargantuan task” beyond the association’s resources.

“Just way too much to try and get a handle on. Simple as that, unfortunately,” said an NCAA official, requesting anonymity. “We just don’t have the staff as it is.”

Sapakoff’s series on painkillers in football also looked at high schools and the NFL.