The Good) This week’s Outside the Lines on concussions in the NFL. Bob Ley reported on the NFL’s investigation into the long-term consequences of multiple concussions. A few years ago, the NFL appointed Dr. Elliott Pellman, a rheumatologist by training to head a study committee about the long-term effects of “mild traumatic brain injuries” – essentially, concussions. OTL interviewed a neurologist, Dr. William Barr, head of neuro-psychology at New York University (NYU) who consulted the committee at one time but was eventually fired. Barr says he was fired for openly criticizing the league’s findings, which have argued, in more than a dozen studies over the past three years, that there is no long-term damage due to repeat concussions. Barr told OTL that the methodology used by the study committee did not follow accepted scientific practices. He also pointed out that Pellman has no prior track record in the field of neurology and, unsurprisingly, Pellman was not allowed to speak to OTL. Barr observed that the NFL is a product that is studying itself and therefore, “there is an inherent bias in its studies” due to the fact that the NFL has a clear interest in one particular set of findings – that there is no additional risk to its players from playing after repeat concussions.
But, OTL reports, a 2003 study, by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at UNC Chapel Hill, looked at over 2500 ex-NFL Players and found a greatly increased risk of depression and susceptibility to Alzheimer’s later in life for players who suffered at least three concussions. One of the players interviewed was Harry Carson (one of my personal all-time favorites), who suggested that Dr. Pellman was “toeing the company line” and estimated that he suffered perhaps thirteen concussions in his playing days which, he believes, helps explain his occasional severe headaches, blurred vision, dizziness and episodes of depression.
Ley’s first in-studio interview was with a University of Pittsburgh professor of sports medicine, Dr, Mark Lovell, a consultant on the NFL studies who disputed Barr’s claims of bias. Lovell said that the NFL studies were preliminary and needed to be replicated, but were carefully done. When Ley told him that Pellman rejected the findings of the UNC study and asked Lovell whether he did as well, Lovell described the study as “interesting” but characterized it as just a survey and of a “very small number”of individuals. Ley clarified that there were 2500 people in the study (I’m just a social scientist, not a hard one, but 2500 is a very healthy sample size where I come from) and Lovell then said that only a small number of people reported cognitive problems of any kind in the survey. Of course, that a small number of people would report cognitive problems does not, by itself, refute the contention that, among those who did, there might have been a statistically significant difference in how many concussions they suffered compared to those without cognitive difficulties. </>
Ley then interviewed Peter Keating, who wrote ESPN the
magazine’s companion story, said that the outside research and outside doctors
seem to doubt the validity of the NFL studies and held a “uniformly low”
opinion of Pellman’s credentials. Keating also pointed out that while the best
Lovell could say about the research in the field was that it was “on-going” the
fact is that the NFL studies continue to draw conclusions consistent with
existing league policy – namely that, since there is no increased risk from
concussions, team’s can decide what to do about a concussed player on a
case-by-case basis. Keating did, by the way, describe Lovell as "very well-respected."
The issue is compelling in itself and adds to a picture of the NFL as ruthless in its pursuit of an image that maximizes its awesome earning power at the expense, arguably, of the well-being of its players or its integrity more generally. It’s also, as usual, an excellent job of reporting by OTL on an issue that deserves more attention than it gets.
The Bad) It’s a minor point – but John Seibel and Freddie Coleman of ESPN radio just drive me nuts sometimes. Yesterday, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 301 yards against the Oakland Raiders, but also got intercepted four times in the Steelers’ 20-13 loss to the lowly Raiders (who now, amazingly, have the same record – 2-5 – as the Steelers).
Seibel and Coleman each, throughout the show, in lead-ins and during the course of conversations about the day in the NFL uttered versions of the following: “if you just looked at the stats, you’d think Roethlisberger had a great day; but, in this case, the stats don’t tell the story.” This is a favorite meme of sports journalism, of course - that you can’t trust the stats and is especially handy when the sports journalist in question isn’t tryingto understand the stats. But, in this case, the NFL happens to have handy a summary statistic just for quarterbacks, and it’s called “quarterback rating.” I’m confident that Seibel and Coleman have heard of it. And, according to that statistic yesterday, Roethlisberger finished the game with a 61.7, a very poor figure. QB rating is a flawed statistic but, in this instance, it tells the story perfectly well – Roethlisberger’s good yardage and completion percentage yesterday were more than off-set by the high interception total. In other words, the stats were perfectly trustworthy in this case.
This is just laziness on the part of Seibel and Coleman.
The Ugly) As I am sure you all know by now, a New York Times profile two weeks ago of the Giants’ star running back Tiki Barber noted that he likely plans on retiring at the end of this season. In subsequent interviews, Barber has confirmed this and last week, three members of the sports commentariat questioned Barber’s decision, or at least the timing of it. Gary Myers, of the New York Daily News, and ESPN’s Tom Jackson suggested that the retirement talk might be a distraction to the team and Michael Irvin went a step further, saying that the announcement, in the middle of the season was tantamount to Barber “quitting” on his teammates. Irvin later elaborated that what he meant to raise was the adverse effect of Tiki’s announcement on his ability to be a team leader the rest of the season, asserting that if Barber tries to pump up his players at a key moment in the game, the younger players are now going to ignore him because of what he’s done.
Tiki, seemingly out of character, criticized all three men, calling them “idiots” on his Sirius radio program this past Tuesday and reserving particular contempt for Irvin, whom he referred to as a “character guy” before adding, “facetiously speaking, of course.”
Tiki especially criticized all three men for failing to talk to his teammates about whether they thought his impending retirement was a distraction before asserting that it was. But, each of the three essentially rejected the idea that they needed to do so.
Here’s what Myers wrote in the Daily News this past week in response to Tiki’s comments:
“I began covering the NFL when Barber was 3 years old and can sense when I believe something will be a distraction. Inthis case, polling his Giants teammates on the Barber Issue, as he suggested should have been done, was not required, although I felt confident that trustworthy people shared my opinion.”
As best as I can tell, this is not so much a defense of how Myers’ practices journalism as it is a refusal to acknowledge that he is one. Because Myers has been doing this for a long time, he doesn’t need to talk to anybody – we should just take his expertise as sufficient for him to assert whatever he thinks is right or true.
Tom Jackson told Mike and the Mad Dog this week that he heard Tiki’s remarks because he was listening to Barber’s show, which TJ said he likes a great deal. TJ also disputed the idea that it was necessary to talk to any of Barber’s teammates before offering his opinion because, after all, TJ is paid to offer his opinion. Jackson also expressed disappointment at Barber’s name calling and suggested that Tiki issues opinions about all sorts of things on his show, such as the war in Iraq without necessarily talking to people in the administration, for example. So, Jackson wanted to know, how is this really any different?
But, according to SI’s Peter King, Barber has interviewed, among other people, John McCain, John Kerry and Condoleeza Rice. In other words, despite the fact that Tiki is a still active NFL player who does a radio show on the side, he would appear to have gone to some length to educate himself about, for example, the Iraq war in order to formulate opinions he expresses on the show. Jackson, by contrast, is a full-time ESPN employee and, presumably, has more ready access to the Giants’ locker room than Barber does to our nation’s leading policy-makers,
Irvin has also bristled at Tiki’s personal shots and defended his opinions primarily by reference to his credentials – as a key leader on a team that won three Super Bowls in four years. Therefore, Irvin has argued this week, he’s been hired by ESPN because of his expertise about what it takes to be an NFL leader.
The problem with arguing that your opinion is unassailable on the basis of your credentials alone is that if you find someone whose credentials are arguably better than yours, doesn’t that make their opinion better than yours? Even leaving aside Barber’s teammates, like Michael Strahan, who have rejected Irvin’s assertions, lots of people this week have dismissed Irvin’s comments – the Giants sure aren’t playing like a distracted team right now, and Tiki is universally respected, especially in his own locker room where, by all accounts, his teammates have known this was coming for at least a year. Mike Ditka is among those who have categorically rejected Irvin’s assertions. Ditka, of course, was a key leader on NFL championship teams as a player and head coach. If credentials make the opinion, doesn’t Ditka’s trump Irvin’s?
Irvin’s comments are also bizarrely out of step with what we know to be Tiki’s on-field personality. If the label “leads-by-example” applies to anyone, it applies to Barber. I’ve watched many Giants games over the years, and I have never seen Barber running up and down the sidelines verbally exhorting his teammates. That’s not his style. If Irvin is reduced to saying that when his teammates watch him perform and no longer feel motivated by that, then he’s really reaching.
Defenders of TJ and Irvin have argued that they were hired to give their opinions and that they are, therefore, entitled to do so. But, the obvious response is that Tiki’s entitled to his opinion, too. Furthermore, being entitled to an opinion is not the same as being entitled to having others respect your opinion. If you make a claim that you cannot back up in any way other than “trust me, I know what I’m talking about, even if the people directly involved categorically disagree” then you’re opening yourself up to having your credibility questioned.
Sports commentary is an opinion-driven, seat-of-the pants phenomenon. I understand that and, as a co-host of a community radio sports talk show, I engage in some of that, too. But, being a high profile commentator doesn’t absolve any of these guys of criticism when they fail to substantiate their claims. That the standards of their profession are as low as they are may lead them to believe that they can say whatever they want without justification. But, it doesn’t follow that their own low standards for their work ought to be the only basis for how other people might judge them.