An Interview with Alan Schwarz
“…my job would be to gather information on — in this case — the causes and effects of brain injuries among football players, not to assess any marketing hit the league might sustain as a result. That being said, to steal from P.T. Barnum, it seems to me that few if any industries have ever gone broke by overestimating Americans’ zest for violence.”
“I have decided that given the fractured state of American media, and the impending demands that journalists create stories for delivery across a spectrum of platforms, I am better served not thinking of myself as a writer — though of course I am committed to that first — but as a content developer/provider, primarily print but audio and video as well. Journalists who fight that probably won’t be journalists for long.”
Alan Schwarz: Interviewed on April 27, 2007
Position: reporter, New York Times
Born: 1968, White Plains, N.Y.
Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., mathematics, 1990
Career: The National (Editorial Assistant, 1990); Baseball America (Senior Writer, 1991-2007), Inside Sports (Media Columnist, 1997-98), New York Times (contributor, 1998-2007, staff reporter, March 2007 –
Personal: married, one son.
Favorite restaurant (home): Ruth’s Chris Steak House, NY “I know it’s a chain, but it’s sinfully good every single doggone time”; Ivy’s Bistro, TriBeCa “I ate there right after 9/11 with a restaurant-reviewer friend, the review helped save the place, and I’ve been friends with the owner ever since”
Favorite restaurant (away): Wild Ginger, Seattle “incredible Asian/fusion food, great atmosphere, referred there by ESPN’s Jim Caple”
Favorite hotel: Renaissance Madison, Seattle “mostly because I love Seattle in the summer”
Author of: “Once Upon a Game”, 2007; “The Numbers Game”, 2004
Alan Schwarz excerpted from the New York Times, January 18, 2007:
Since the former National Football League player Andre Waters killed himself in November, an explanation for his suicide
has remained a mystery. But after examining remains of Mr. Waters’s brain, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh is claiming that Mr. Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football and he says that led to his depression
and ultimate death.
The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh
, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s
victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Omalu said that brain trauma “is the significant contributory factor” to Mr. Waters’s brain damage, “no matter how you look at it, distort it, bend it. It’s the significant forensic factor given the global scenario.”
He added that although he planned further investigation, the depression that family members recalled Mr. Waters exhibiting in his final years was almost certainly exacerbated, if not caused, by the state of his brain — and that if he had lived, within 10 or 15 years “Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated.”
Dr. Omalu’s claims of Mr. Waters’s brain deterioration — which have not been corroborated or reviewed — add to the mounting scientific debate over whether victims of multiple concussions, and specifically longtime N.F.L. players who may or may not know their full history of brain trauma, are at heightened risk of depression, dementia and suicide as early as midlife.
The N.F.L. declined to comment on Mr. Waters’s case specifically. A member of the league’s mild traumatic brain injury committee, Dr. Andrew Tucker, said that the N.F.L. was beginning a study of retired players later this year to examine the more general issue of football concussions and subsequent depression.
Q. Where is the NFL concussion/brain damage story headed?
A. By putting three stories on the front page this year, the Times clearly has evinced itself as committed to examining the risks, both understood and not, of playing football with respect to brain injuries. I’m afraid I can’t go into further details because your site is undoubtedly read by my competition.
Q. How has your coverage of NFL concussions/brain damage affected your perception of the game?
A. I really didn’t have any perception of football per se before I began my work. While I know my share about football through watching games over the years, my professional background has been almost exclusively covering baseball. I think it is a positive — for readers, the Times and the NFL — that my work on this topic began and continues with as clean a slate as could reasonably be expected.
Q. Could football lose audience if fans draw a causal relationship to brain damage – similar to boxing?
A. You are assuming that fan interest in boxing has declined because of the pugilistica dementia suffered by some of its participants. I don’t know that to be true. Beyond that, my job would be to gather information on — in this case — the causes and effects of brain injuries among football players, not to assess any marketing hit the league might sustain as a result. That being said, to steal from P.T. Barnum, it seems to me that few if any industries have ever gone broke by overestimating Americans’ zest for violence.
Q. Explain your use of video to complement your stories – what restrictions and gray areas exist? What multi-platform strategy would you recommend to a young journalist starting out today?
A. This is a fascinating new area that I have tried to learn quickly — basically to stave off my own professional obsolescence. As we all know, newspapers have had to adapt to demands of the market (particularly among youth) for multimedia content. Also, they don’t want to just listen to some Jewish guy from New York who couldn’t play sports to save his life prattle on about the games and personalities — they want to see and hear the players themselves.
So I decided about a year ago to learn how to cut and produce my own audio and video stories on my laptop, using software like Audacity and Adobe Premier. When I did an interview with Si Simmons, a 110-year-old former Negro Leaguer, for a print story in the New York Times, I brought along a video camera — and produced a 10-minute highlight reel for my website, alanschwarz.com. When I conducted interviews for my book of player memories (“Once Upon a Game”), I also produced audio clips so people could go to my site and hear the players talking rather than just reading their words on a page.
I have decided that given the fractured state of American media, and the impending demands that journalists create stories for delivery across a spectrum of platforms, I am better served not thinking of myself as a writer — though of course I am committed to that first — but as a content developer/provider, primarily print but audio and video as well. Journalists who fight that probably won’t be journalists for long.
Q. Who and what do you read in sports? Who were your writing influences?
A. The best baseball writer working today, bar none, has for years been Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. No one else mixes such precise reporting, grace, structure, humor and understanding of the game than him, and it’s not even close. Less known to most folks is the wonderful work done for 20 years by Jerry Crasnick (ESPN.com) and Jim Caple (ESPN.com). I have no formal journalism training at all – I was a mathematics major, for heaven’s sake – but in many respects those three guys taught me how to do this.
Other primary influences include the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Paul Simon, and the long and wonderful sentences of Scott Fitzgerald.
(SMG thanks Alan Schwarz for his cooperation)