In November of 2006, former NFL defensive back Andre Waters committed suicide. Barely two months later, journalist Alan Schwarz reported in The New York Times that Waters had suffered from severe trauma-induced brain damage from a series of concussions suffered during his 12-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. In effect, Waters’ brain was that of an 80-year-old suffering from dementia.
Thus began a series of groundbreaking articles about the connection between concussions and brain damage among NFL players. Schwarz’ sobering, well-researched pieces led to U.S. Congressional hearings and forced the NFL to admit that concussions can lead to long-term cognitive impairment. In addition, the NFL has implemented new rules about treating concussions among its active players and heavily fined players who deliver helmet-to-helmet hits.
Schwarz soon expanded his scope beyond the NFL. Many of his stories have focused on concussions in youth sports and, in particular, youth football. Some 1.4 million high schoolers play football and, as Schwarz notes, “They either do not know what a concussion is or they simply do not care. Their code of silence, bred by football’s gladiator culture, allows them to play on and sometimes be hurt much worse — sometimes fatally . . . At least 50 high school or younger football players in more than 20 states since 1997 have been killed or have sustained serious head injuries on the field.”
In October, when Schwarz investigated the football helmet industry, he revealed that, “Helmets both new and used are not — and have never been — formally tested against the forces believed to cause concussions. The industry, which receives no governmental or other independent oversight, requires helmets for players of all ages to withstand only the extremely high-level force that would otherwise fracture skulls.”
“The standard has not changed meaningfully since it was written in 1973, despite rising concussion rates in youth football and the growing awareness of how the injury can cause significantly short- and long-term problems with memory, depression and other cognitive functions, especially in children.”
Before joining the New York Times, Schwarz was a staff writer at Baseball America and a columnist for ESPN.com. He is the author of “The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics” (St. Martin’s) and “Once Upon a Game: Baseball’s Greatest Memories” (Houghton Mifflin). His writing has won numerous awards, including the prestigious George Polk Award (2009), honoring excellence in print journalism.
SportsLetter spoke to Schwarz from New York City by telephone.
— David Davis