Sport brains under investigation

Has investigative journalism reached the list of endangered types of science news coverage in the media?

It feels like watchdog journalism in general is more the underdog nowadays. Life is faster, deadlines compromise content and media profits do not seem to allow an investment of time in a good story anymore.

And there are definitely good stories out there on a variety of socio-economical, political and even science related topics. Luckily my feeling that a successful journalistic effort to go, explore and publish isn’t extinct yet, has recently been confirmed when I came across a weekly review in the The Guardian Weekly (August 5th issue) written by Ed Pilkington.

His extensive article on “Footballs’ greatest head case” discusses the price of becoming a Superstar in a contact sport, which is often an understatement considering the forces dealt with by opponents during a game. Pilkington’s story is specifically about the highs and lows of American NFL star Dave Duerson, who played for the Chicago Bears during their legendary Super Bowl victory in 1985 – just one of his many highs in life.

Dave Duerson seemed to have it all. But a few months ago, at the age of 50, he shot himself in the heart. A suicide note was left with a request rather than an explanation:

“Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank”

The NFL’s brain bank is officially known as The Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University in Massachusetts. Here, neuropathologist Dr. Anne McKee, is in charge of an extraordinary collection of brains donated by famous sport men. She and her colleagues study brain damage as a result of head injuries on sporting ground, particularly those of  tough contact sports.

The effect that severe and repetitive concussions followed by unconsiousness can have in the long term is frightening. Memory loss, irritability and dramatic changes in mood, known characteristics of dementia or Alzheimer at old age, now also typify young sport heroes taking too many blows for the sake of the game.  To get a sense of the blows dealt with, just watch the following video about what it took the Chicago Bears to win the Super Bowl.

The health science aspects behind this sport injury induced progressive degenerative disease, which led Duerson to end his life,  is further explained in a video for the public prepared by the McKee.

Clearly, such a high price for fame and fortune in sports is not limited to football in the US. Other more international sports like wrestling, rugby and boxing can create similar adverse conditions for its players. And even soccer can probably not be exempted. Just think of how many neurons you may loose by scoring a goal with a head kick.

Luckily, McKee’s research seems to have instigated a debate within sport associations like the NFL. Let’s hope the media can also accept that sport sensationalism may have to be tempered a little for the long term benefit of its main actors in the game.

All in all, great investigative journalism by Pilkington on a timely science research investigation by McKee into some unfortunate consequences of what so many in the world see as entertainment.

Ed Pilkington, Footballs’ Greatest Head Case. Weekly Review in the Guardian Weekly 05.08.11, p 25-27.

By Anke van Eekelen

7 comments on “Sport brains under investigation

  1. Ankev,

    I agree that Pilkington’s article is a great example of good sports journalism. Such a large proportion of this genre today is written subject to competition, industry pressures and money making concerns, and this article is a rare exception. Another area of sports journalism I’ve noticed that has the same problems is surf journalism.

    Surf journalism used to be investigative of the marketing tools of ‘surf brands’ and the like, for example, but that seems to have diminished now that they rely so heavily on these brands for advertising dollars.

    Thanks for bringing to attention an article that has restored my faith in sports journalism.

    • Rosanna,

      I should thank you, as I had never heard of ‘surf writing’. I went through your link and learned that, similar to investigative journalism, surf writing has lost its genuine nature for similar reasons: time pressure and content censorship.

      But, correct me if I am wrong, I also learned that surf writing was characterised by its spontaneous and sometimes incorrect use of language. This may have been preferred by less educated but highly skilled sportsmen to reflect the real experience, but appeared unacceptable by the academics in language studies and journalism.

      It is intriguing to think now of what contributes most to the apparent down fall of surf and investigative journalism in terms of the coverage of news in sport.


    • I find the topic of brain injuries in professional athletes’ very interesting. In Canada this topic comes up quite frequently because professional ice hockey players tend to suffer a lot of concussions. My guess is that it’s because:
      1. They get checked and their head smashes into the boards
      2. They get tripped and their head smashes into the ice
      3. They drop their gloves and start punching each other in the head
      Every time a player gets seriously injured there is always talk about how to make the game safer and less violent.

      I don’t have the talent to play sports professionally, but it makes me wonder what I would be willing to sacrifice in the future so that I could be rich and famous now. I did suffer some concussions from soccer as a kid and that never made me quit the sport. Still I guess I should be glad that my winter sport was curling and not hockey. Hopefully my brain is not too damaged, although my friends may have a different opinion about that.

      Anyway great post, I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. I almost wonder whether the relationship between these injuries and sports journalism itself is the more interesting of the conundrums explored here. On one hand such journalists much be acutely aware of the issue and are obligated to give true and relevant coverage, and yet they walk a fine line, since there is a risk of scaring readers away from their work if they portray such issues too darkly for the public tastes.

    I’d be interested to know what the average sports fan feels comfortable acknowledging, but then so would the mass media, whose current speculation evidently points towards “not much”.

  3. Anke,
    I also had heard about this story but off the CNN app on my phone. The headline was mainly focussing on the death of Dave Duerson but, as you read on, it went into more and more detail about his symptoms and about CTE. It did get into the science but unfortunately I think the media is worried that people aren’t as interested in science as they are in celebrities. Maybe the best way to get science investigative journalism out is to hopefully be able to relate it to celebrities and public figures. What do you think?


    • Madeline,

      I like the fact that I did a blog on a story that gave more insight into what you already received as news a few months earlier.

      If you trail back how the death of Dave Duerson was reported on since February 2011, you find a peak in short news flashes just after his suicide followed by only occasional channels of media that have digged deeper.

      The peak can definitely be explained by a more common interest in Duerson as a celebrity. I feel sorry for all those sportsmen, who have suffered like him, but did not make it to the stage of fame. They may still be out there dealing too young with dementia and Alzheimer type of symptoms, as only a fraction of them end their lives.

      Because of this realisation, I appreciated Pilkington’s attempt to seriously address the issue in a newspaper with an educated audience not solely interested in sports.

      Sport associations being torn between the risk of their player’s long-term health and the profits that contact sports can make by being so tough and entertaining are now in a tricky situation. Scientists like McKee have pushed them to make ethical considerations. A huge achievement by science, don’t you think?


  4. Thank you Anke, your post filled with great notion!

    It’s a quite surprise for me that professional sports organisation supported such a study, and such an article could exist!
    Sensationalism driven article is quite popular in sports journalism, and I felt like it must be a kind of taboo to talk about long lasting difficulties caused by sports, but Pilkington seems did great job.

    In case of my country, Sumo is covered by secret vail.
    As you may know, It’s national sports in Japan, and as huge (over 200kg!) guys beats each other in nearly naked, they tend to get injured, but rarely reported. In addition, since they have to gain weight, sumo wrestlers take too much energies, so after their retirement, not small number of them have to pay their debt in health. However, these issues are rarely spoken. Actually, all pro sports players seem like, they already accepted their risk, but it does no means dangerous features can left there without any mending,

    This article seems like a great example of how to pursuit the most difficult audience for scientific article, sports fan. I hope we have another Pilkington in japan some day.

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