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New York Times writer discusses concussion research in the NFL

| Thursday, March 23, 2017

Allan Schwarz, the journalist who broke the story on the football-concussion connection, speaks at Notre Dame on Wednesday.Emmet Farnan | The Observer
Allan Schwarz, the journalist who broke the story on the football-concussion connection, speaks at Notre Dame on Wednesday.

In 2007, former New York Times investigative reporter Alan Schwarz started writing a series of stories reporting on the staggering rate of concussions amongst NFL players, leading to new regulations and a congressional hearing. In his talk at Jordan Auditorium on Wednesday, Schwarz discussed his research process and how his interests in sports and math informed his research.

Schwarz said that after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in math, he started to write as a sports journalist. At the end of 2006, Schwarz began to receive information about brain damages of football players from his friends, which caught his attention.

“I, like everybody else, thought [a] concussion was a brain bruise,” he said. “But it can bring on early Alzheimer-type symptoms — cognitive impairment, cognitive decline, memory loss … that’s pretty awful.”

Schwarz said he observed four consecutive football players diagnosed with concussions — he figured there must be a correlation between playing football and concussions.

“The chance for these players to have this disease is greatly higher than the national population,” he said. “Something is going on here.”

After embarking on his research into the effects of concussions, Schwarz said he was confronted by NFL managers and scientists, who tried hard to deny the risk of brain damage that playing football presented.

When Schwarz told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that four out of four football players he observed suffered from concussion symptoms, Goodell refused to believe it.

Schwarz’s persistent research with mathematical modelings further convinced him of the cause-and-effect relation between repetitive head collisions and concussions. Several months later, Schwarz said he obtained the NFL’s research on brain disease, which was conducted by the University of Michigan. Schwarz said this critical study revealed that NFL retirees aged 30-49 are 19 times susceptible to memory problems, while NFL retirees aged above 50 have six times the chance of having memory-related diseases, compared to all U.S. men.

Despite the consequences of Schwarz’s stories, he said he never harbored any resentment against the sport itself.

“I’ve never said that football should be banned. I’ve never said that there should be different rules, anything like that,” Schwarz said. “My whole point is just that ‘Look, there’s an increase of risk.’ People should know about that so that they can make better-informed decisions for themselves and their kids.”

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