Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Midweek Fixture: Getting ahead of a head problem

By Dylan Cleaver

Has the media jumped ahead of science with its links between sport concussions and cognitive defects? According to three pieces of research forwarded to me in the last month, yes. And, it is being suggested, the media are skewing the narrative.

Article one, titled A Gray Matter, from the NCAA website, included these lines: "For many people, a lack of understanding of concussion rocketed past awareness and landed squarely at angst... researchers worry that many of those choices [whether to play, or allow children to play, American football] are being informed by stories, not science."

Article two, from the momsteam website, gets straight to the point in its headline and blurb on : "CTE: Is Media Narrative Ahead Of The Science? Prevailing media narrative is 'scientifically premature' say many researchers."

The third article is a multi-bylined academic paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It is titled: "Sports concussion research, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the media: repairing the disconnect."

This paper cites the example of NHL enforcer Todd Ewen who, convinced he was suffering from CTE, committed suicide at age 49. The authors ask: "How did a professional athlete who had treatable depression, come to believe that he had an untreatable condition and committed suicide?"

In not so many words, it was the media's fault.

Read more:
The Longest Goodbye: Rugby and the Dementia Dilemma
Revealed: Six reasons why concussion report matters
Rugby research caught in the breakdown

This is an intriguing, though entirely predictable, development. Most stories of magnitude work like a set of scales. If you think of the concussion/CTE narrative balance, at one extreme you have the position of not too many years ago, when it was believed that there was no lasting damage from head knocks unless they were of the catastrophic variety. At the other end you have those who fear anybody that suffers multiple concussions will end up suffering from some long-term cognitive impairment.

Depending on where the research is at any given time or, and this is just as important, the influence lies (and in the US, the biggest shaper of opinion was the communications machinery of the multi-billion dollar National Football League), those scales will tilt one way or the other.

After years of denial that concussion played any sort of role in long-term health problems, we have tilted towards the belief that concussion and sub-concussive blows can lead to chronic, degenerative brain injuries.

Now, the Ewen case looks like it will serve as a touchstone for concussion sceptics, some scientists and, unfortunately, sports administrators who seek to minimise the potential dangers of their sport (please note the use of the word "potential"). There is no great concern for the welfare of those Ewen has left behind; he is merely material to add weight to the side of the scales that have been a bit light of late.

It should be noted here that two of these articles were sent to me from New Zealand Rugby. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact it is a welcome development, but of the thousands of links to articles and papers that could have been forwarded on the vexed topic of concussion, the only two the national body has alerted me to are ones which highlight a supposed media deficiency.

Here's the rub: it is a conceit of science (and the sporting bodies who often pay for the science) to suggest we should be waiting for them to lock down watertight proof before we further explore the link between CTE and concussion.

If anything, it is the media's role to harness its power to expedite the process by telling the very human stories that are integral to public health issues like Thalidomide, asbestos, Big Tobacco and, now, concussion.

"There are times and cases in our society when we ask for too much evidence before we act," said best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in a controversial speech to the University of Pennsylvania. "Sometimes we use the desire for proof as an excuse not to do anything. As a result there are lots of cases where we let people suffer when we shouldn't."

There is NO proof that playing American football, playing rugby, playing league, or heading a football gives you CTE. There is NO proof that can tell us with any certainty what percentage of players might end up with the disease. There is NO proof that can tell us how many concussive blows or sub-concussive blows will result in long-term brain problems.

We are short on proof.

We are increasingly long on evidence.

There are times when the media sees ghosts instead of shadows, but if we've tipped the narrative scales too far in terms of linking concussion to CTE... well let's be honest, it's a damn sight safer than the alternative.


Last week I highlighted a largely sympathetic profile of tennis brat Nick Kyrgios from the New York Times. Now, as the tournament enters its home straight, it is worth re-hitting possibly the greatest tennis profile written, about another tennis brat with the ultimate tennis mum.

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