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.