Jeff Pearlman

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Alan Schwarz

#341
The writer who tackled concussions and ADHD thinks daily about the Pulitzer that got away. But it's mathematics, not journalism, that drive him forward. POSTED January 4, 2018

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Back when I was a young writer at Sports Illustrated, there was a certain pack mentality to up-and-coming national scribes.

It’s hard to explain, but the men and women from magazines and big newspapers often chatted in press boxes, dined on the road, exchanged war stories about this hotel, that PR director. It was the club I always wanted to join, and being included meant a great deal to an insecure 26-year-old Jeff Pearlman.

During those days, I would see Baseball America‘s Alan Schwarz fairly often, but I’m not sure I ever considered him “one of us.” I address this below, and chalk it up 100 percent to my insecurity. But Alan just seemed … different. Smarter—definitely. Better dressed—always. More knowledgable about the inner-workings of the game—almost certainly. Whatever the case, I don’t think I ever fully understood the man, or even tried to. I probably felt threatened. That’s the beast of juvenile insecurity.

Anyhow, it was misguided. And as I sit here at 45, I look at Alan’s work and marvel. His investigative digging on concussions for the New York Times is the stuff of groundbreaking legend, and his ADHD reporting (and book) is the sort of material we all strive for.

In short: A. He’s done this business well; B. I was an ass.

One can follow Alan on Twitter here, and visit his website here.

Alan Schwarz, you are the 341st Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Alan, I’m gonna start with a weird one. So the first sentence of your Wikipedia bio identifies you as a “Pulitzer Prize-nominated” New York Times reporter. And, having never sniffed a sniff of a sniff of a sniff of a Pulitzer, I wonder what the process/experience is like. I truly have no idea—do you find out you’re nominated, then try and figure out your odds of winning? Do people say, “Oh, it’s in the bag”? Do you think about it a lot? Is there speech planning involved? And, when you find out you didn’t win, is it crushing? Disappointing? No biggie?

ALAN SCHWARZ: Just to clarify, I don’t write or edit my Wikipedia page, which has some mistakes—not the least of which (at least as of now) is still saying I’m with the Times, more than a year after I left. The “Pulitzer Prize-nominated” description is correct but, yes, a little confusing.

From what I was told, “nominated” for a Pulitzer does not mean “submitted for consideration”—turns out anyone can send in their stuff for the committee to eyeball. It actually means you were one of the three official finalists from which the winner is then chosen. My concussion series was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer for Public Service (considered the most prestigious), so I was indeed nominated, something we found out through the grapevine a few weeks before the winners were decided. I spent several months being told I should—would—win, by people who really knew how it worked, and was pretty much an emotional wreck in the days leading up to the announcement. If you win, you’re immortal; this would have been the highest honor a sports reporter had ever received in the history of the field. Then, three days ahead of the official announcement, executive editor Bill Keller told me he knew that I had not won—the committee had chosen a Los Angeles Times series on political corruption in the small city of Bell, Calif. People had a hard time seeing how something that regionally specific qualified for writ-large Public Service, compared to our concussion work’s effects on national, even worldwide, children’s health. Keller said afterward, publicly, “I make it a practice not to second-guess the Pulitzer board—but on this one, I can’t help making an exception.”

That meant a lot to me, still does. I’ve always said, and meant it, that I would have rather finished second with the Times than won somewhere else. But I’ll admit that not a day goes by—literally—when I don’t wonder what could have been.

Alan (back row, red shirt) rocking it groovy in 1974.

Alan (back row, third from right) rocking the groovy glasses in 1974.

J.P.: You’re now known as one of the big guns when it comes to understanding the relationship between football and concussions. And it’s strange—because I knew you as the Baseball America guy for years … then one day, ‘Whoa, it’s Schwarz! And he’s the concussion guru.” So how did that first come about? When were you initially interested in the subject?

A.S.: Yes, I had been a baseball writer exclusively, for all 16 years of my career, when the concussion story pretty much fell in my lap. My first book, “The Numbers Game,” came out in 2004 and did very well. A year later, in the summer of 2005, my old editor at Inside Sports magazine, Ken Leiker, had become the communications guy (I think) for the World Wrestling Federation—and one of the wrestlers there, Chris Nowinski, who also happened to have played football at Harvard, had written a book on football concussions. Could I take a look at it and maybe give him some advice about publishing a first book? Sure, Ken, send it over. It blew me away. Not the text—that was fine—it was the footnotes, of all things. Everything was documented. All the assertions that the NFL had a concussion problem and was covering it up—sourced. All the studies about kids’ brain injuries—cited fastidiously. I knew nothing about concussions, but I sure knew what good, solid work was.

So I told Chris to come down from Boston to New York and I would introduce him to my agent and a few publisher friends, just as a professional courtesy. People had helped me when I was unknown, so pay it forward. Chris did come down, that summer of 2005, but no one thought his book was worth publishing (read: commercially viable). I said that was nuts—this was clearly in important matter that should be put in print if only as a public service. No one gave it the time of day. And that was it. Chris went back to his life, I went back to mine. I didn’t give it a second thought, honestly. But then, over a year later, in December 2006, Chris called me out of the blue. He said, “Alan, I might have some big news on my hands, and you’re the only one who ever took me seriously.” Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles safety, had killed himself a few weeks before and Chris was having the brain tissue examined for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the disease to that point seen almost exclusively in boxers. Chris asked me that, if Waters did have the pathology, what media outlet might be interested? Well, I thought of only two places. ESPN, and Bob Ley of “Outside the Lines” specifically, because Bob darned well knows news when he sees it and wouldn’t be bullied by the NFL. The other place was The New York Times. I didn’t work at the Times, but I was writing a ton of sports stories for them as a freelancer—columns on statistical analysis as well as features, two of which had been on the front page. The sports editor, Tom Jolly, was a fantastic guy whom I trusted. Waters sounded like a New York Times story. So again, I told Chris to come down and I’d set up a meeting with Tom. And again, he did. But this time, Tom recognized just how important this could be. Four of us were in the meeting at the old Times building: Chris, Tom, me and Jason Stallman, a young editor (now Sports Editor) who also keenly sensed what this story might become. Waters hadn’t been diagnosed with CTE yet; if the tests did come out positive, though, the Times would report the story. Great. Now, I honestly didn’t think the Times would have me handle the story. I was exclusively a baseball writer, and certainly not a hard-news guy. I thought that, if only for legal reasons for a story like that, they’d have a staff person like Lee Jenkins do it. As we walked out of Tom’s office I took him aside and told him, “Hey, I understand if you want a Times employee to do this. I get it.” But Tom, much to my surprise, said, “No, it’s your story, you do it.”

About a week later, the results came in on Waters—positive for CTE. He had the same brain disease as boxers. How many NFL players could also be affected? Furthermore, millions of children play tackle football every week—what about them? Could they be at risk, too? From the start, this was considered by the Times, and me, to be as much of a public-health story as an NFL one. I spent about a week reporting out the Waters/CTE story, speaking to all the principals, Dr. Bennet Omalu (the doctor who made the Waters diagnosis, and whose story was dramatized in the movie “Concussion”), the NFL doctors who said the findings were meaningless, etc. The Times put it on the front page, needless to say. It was a huge deal. Then, a few days later, Ted Johnson, the former Patriots linebacker and Super Bowl champion, called me to say he was having terrible post-concussion syndrome at 36, traced directly to Bill Belichick coercing him to play through a concussion. I wrote the Johnson story, it came out two days before the Super Bowl, and basically all hell broke loose. The Times hired me virtually overnight to dig into brain trauma in football wherever it led. It led to more than 130 stories, Congressional hearings, movies, threats, new laws protecting young athletes, a $1 billion settlement for retired players, and the NFL being exposed for not just having asbestos in its walls, but for shamelessly covering it up.

J.P.: All around me here in Southern California I see young kids signing up for tackle football. And I keep thinking—what the fuck? So I ask you—What the fuck? Is it crazy, in your eyes? Is it akin to handing Junior a pack of Camels? Or is there far more nuance to this debate?

A.S.: People don’t believe me—and most of your readers won’t, either—but I have never formed any opinion on whether kids “should” or “should not” play football. My job was to unearth information that people weren’t getting, and get it to them in a manner that they could absorb and understand. What they did with that information was their business. Neither publicly nor even privately have I ever written, said or even hinted that football should not be played at any level. I never even quoted anyone saying or even hinting that football should be banned. Not once. I’m still asked the question several times a week—whether it’s an interviewer, a stranger or even a friend. I just don’t do it. Not once in these 10 years. The N.F.L. could never, and never will, be able to say that Schwarz was politicking for any reform. This isn’t rhetorical gymnastics; it’s really how I think, my machete through the sagebrush.

You see, football, or “football” (in quotes), doesn’t exist. Or it doesn’t exist in the way that a tree or a building exists. It is a game that emerges from dozens of rules and factors and choices, all of which adults oversee. A parent whose kid wants to play football must consider many questions first. How old is he? What position does he want to play? Is the coach insane? Are the other teams’ coaches insane? Do they teach proper tackling techniques? Do the league’s referees enforce the rules or foster mayhem? What medical services (EMT, certified athletic trainer, MD, etc.) are at games in case something goes wrong? Is your kid the biggest on the field, or the smallest? Can he be trusted to tell an adult if he’s injured, concussion or otherwise? Is the league using some of the recent rule changes, such as no kickoffs/punts and a smaller field? Are the helmets relatively new and formally inspected/reconditioned every year? These are the questions to ask. Not the sport’s name.

J.P.: I didn’t realize that your career began—for a whopping five months—at The National, Frank Deford’s short-lived daily awesomeness. How did you get there? What was your experience? Could it have worked? And why didn’t it?

A.S.: I was their youngest full-time editorial employee—they hired me straight out of Penn in May 1990 as an Editorial Assistant, which is to say I answered phones and, when the 300-baud modems didn’t work on deadline, typed 100-words-per-minute dictation from seething writers. (Tom Keegan was delightful; Mike Lupica less so.) There’s no question that a family connection helped: My father’s cousin, Tim Lasker, was pretty senior on the business/tech side, and he made sure my resume and clips got considered by the right person. Frank was great—he encouraged me to write some short bits for the paper, and I eventually did several features, including a two-page take-out on September call-ups. (I still have Frank’s handwritten note of congratulations.)

As for its demise, from its conception the company set its sights incredibly high, having a ritzy Fifth Avenue address, hiring the most famous sportswriters for triple-their-salary contracts, buying the newest electronic typesetting terminals, renting cutting-edge telecommunications satellites, and what-not, sparing no expense. Those expenses and others wound up eating through their $100 million (I seem to recall) seed money in less than two years, sending the enterprise gasping to its June 1991 death. In retrospect they were probably doomed anyway; under everyone’s nose the World Wide Web and Netscape would break through in a few years, delivering national sports scores and news to homes for free. Unless the National had quickly 90-degreed its strategy (and so many such companies never did) it couldn’t have lasted as a print vehicle.

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J.P.: I’m gonna write something that you probably won’t like: Back when you were at Baseball America, I wasn’t the biggest Alan Schwarz fan. I’m just being honest here. It had nothing to do with your writing (which was great) or your talent (which was obvious). I just thought, sort of from afar, that you were this typical smug Ivy Leaguer who thought his shit didn’t stink (And, to be clear, I was a cocky Delaware grad who thought his shit didn’t stink). Soooo … I love when we all look back at ourselves and I wonder, who were you then? Were you smug? Was that a stupid misread by idiot me? Were you confident? Happy? Content?

A.S.: You’re right—I don’t like it. “How did I dislike thee, let you count the ways.” Even if it were just your (admitted above) Delaware-vs.-Penn inferiority complex, seems to me that was your problem, not mine—and a strange one, given how you had shot up to the apex of Sports Illustrated at 24 while I was working at 20,000-circ Baseball America. Imposter Syndrome, presumably? Now, it’s fair to say that I’m a pretty intellectual guy, and drew upon that in my features and columns. I quoted John Stuart Mill in a Marge Schott lede, and wrote about and conducted statistical analysis (very pre-Moneyball) as the mathematics major I was not ashamed to be. Perhaps that irked you while transcribing John Rocker or calling David Wells fat. I don’t know why it would. I’m certainly glad you didn’t share this back then. I liked you. I would have cared.

J.P.: In 2011 you jumped from sports to national at the Times, and you dove hard and heavy into Adderall abuse and ADHD (which led to your book, “ADHD Nation”). Your work has received a lot of praise and a lot of criticism, primarily from parents of kids with ADHD. I know what it is to be bashed for saying, oh, the Reds will come in fifth or Emmitt Smith was overrated. But how did you handle the backlash? It strikes me as pretty awful to endure.

A.S.: At the risk of inviting more, yes, the criticism really hurts—to me, the mean stuff feels more bad than the praise feels good, which is a precarious (and frankly unsustainable) mindset for a journalist doing controversial work. (I’m not ashamed to say it contributed to my walking away from the Times and hardcore journalism in the summer of 2016.) Intelligent dissent is fine. But you rarely get that. E-mail and Facebook and Twitter have become bile-delivery systems for people who don’t care what the truth is, a forum for them to baste themselves in their own gravy.

The reaction to my ADHD book has been as disheartening as it was predictable, from both sides of the argument. Those who decry child psychiatry or medications like Adderall in and of themselves say: “See! I told you ADHD was a pharma-constructed conspiracy to mind-control children!”—which neither the book nor I remotely suggest. People on the other side, who want to ignore the rampant misdiagnosis of ADHD nationally, say: “Schwarz is just a muckraking alarmist trying to sell books. He’s no doctor! What could he possibly know?” The ADHD factions have grown so polarized and unable to consider simple (if unpleasant) facts that they can’t learn anything, and it’s children who get hurt. Period. People use the book as a sword, not a mirror. This kill-the-messenger mentality didn’t come just from child psychiatry—and, looking back, not just the NFL and its “scientist” cronies, who spread lies about me and tried to get me fired. After Dave Duerson killed himself in 2011 by shooting himself in the chest, Sports Illustrated (!) sent me an e-mail saying they were about to publish an essay on how the New York Times (read, Schwarz) was exaggerating the issue of player brain damage and scaring players into suicide—and do I have any comment?

Not long before that, I got a phone call from someone with some power who accused me of taking bribes from the NFL because I wasn’t nailing them on what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know-it, and threatening to expose me. I was once asked by an NFL source, “Do you have a family?” It all just sucked. You can’t fight illogic with logic. You have to just hope the crazies don’t really try to hurt anything beyond your feelings. My good friend Randall Lane, now the head guy at Forbes, long ago shared with me a maxim: if you piss everyone off, you’ve done your job. I do get that. But, frankly, I don’t want to spend the rest of my days pissing people off. Some people take pleasure in it. Are empowered by it. Not me. I have a fantasy, one which would dispatch with all of this crap once and for all. Before I die, I’d love to have either the NFL or ADHD henchmen come to a room, under the lights, and debate me—on live television. Two hours. All the issues, all the studies, all the sorry-but-they’re-just-facts. Your four top people against me alone. I’ll bury them. But they don’t have the guts.

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J.P.: You’re a math lover. Your degree is actually in mathematics. My son, a sixth grader, loathes the subject. He finds it boring, repetitive, annoying. Is there a way to snap him out of this? Do some people just not like math—period? Do you think, perhaps, there are ways to teach math that would be more engrossing than standard methods?

A.S.: I honestly don’t know. My love for numbers and algebra and trigonometry and probability is something that is almost endocrine—there’s some spleen-like organ in my core secreting what has flowed through me since I could barely crawl. Explaining it is like asking some painter, “Why do you like blue?” Now that I think of it, maybe it’s because I’m actually somewhat color-blind—my colors have lain across a different spectrum, and I experience them as others might tint and hue. I see math in the weirdest places. Take rock lyrics and movie lines. When Renée Zellweger says “You had me at hello” to Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” I think of how choosing a mate the moment you meet is actually a strategy straight out of decision science, with roots stretching back to 18th century discussions of compound interest (which, to Renée’s delight, Tom had). Neil Sedaka singing “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” conjures up complicated division algorithms used by divorcing couples to split up assets. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” places me onto a Mobius strip, a piece of paper with only one side (huh?) and a key figure in topology. I’m writing a book now about how mathematics can be seen, and perhaps taught, through these well-known, accessible bits of popular culture. Math evangelists often try to sell the subject as more than numbers and rote computation, that it is beautiful. They mean well but I don’t think that’s going to work for people who just don’t buy it. But they probably like music and movies. Maybe we can have some fun with that.

J.P.: When did you know you wanted to write? Like, did you have the lightbulb ah-ha! moment? Did you write as a kid? School paper? Etc.?

A.S.: I never “wanted to write”—at least not in the way that many people, and presumably you, have felt and can tap into for either inspiration or self-loathing. My goal until I was 22 was to be a high school math teacher—and that’s what I had expected well into the spring of my senior year at Penn, when I was informed that public-school certification required grad school, which I dreaded. So I had to do something. Sports writing was a good option; I had written a great deal for the Penn student newspaper, and after getting my break from the National and Baseball America I became, quite accidentally, a so-called “journalist” (whatever that means). From the start, writing, at least in the way that I do it, became my form of teaching, just at a different blackboard. They are far more similar than people realize: in both, you have an audience looking at you to explain something cogently and compellingly, and your goal is to leave them a little more knowledgeable about it than when they showed up. You have to keep their attention—earn it, reward it, with every sentence.

More granularly, a nonfiction article greatly resembles a mathematical proof: You start out with some facts/givens, say A and B, and combine them into conclusion C; you take C and add fact D, creating conclusion E, take conclusions C and E and facts F and G to create conclusion H, and so on. Until you get to the point you’re trying to establish/prove. And you can’t skip a step—one mistake and the whole thing falls apart. The last Christmas-tree bulb doesn’t turn on. But if you do it right, the result works, beyond (intelligent) dispute, and can be downright beautiful. Seeing other similarities between writing and mathematics/physics—use of ratio, speed and angle—became how I executed articles. I’ll leave it with this. People say that writers are “creative.” But I don’t think writers, at least nonfiction writers, create a thing. Our job, as I view it, resembles that of a sculptor. A sculptor doesn’t create anything—he chips away and removes all the stuff that shouldn’t be there, to release what had been hidden inside that big block of marble. It was always there. But he or she saw it and made it viewable. As a journalist, your job is to see what matters, what works and what fits together, and take away everything else. What remains was there before you ever showed up.

J.P.: Kinda random, but you turn 50 next year. I turn 46 next year. We were once the next line of sports journalists—young, up-and-coming, etc. Then you blink and here we are, more than two decades removed. So A. How do you feel about aging as a journalist? And B. How do you feel about aging—period?

A.S.: Last part first—I’m totally in midlife crisis. Not as a husband or father, but as a guy with aggressively graying hair (though not on top, wink-wink) and some sneakily creaky joints. You hear about guys dropping dead of heart attacks at 56 or 62, and (my probability background notwithstanding) I know I could be one of them. It’s not like I’m going out and buying a Porsche. No. But I’m buying a Lego Porsche, and having a blast with it. Now, you also ask me about “aging as a journalist,” but I don’t consider myself a journalist anymore. (In some ways I never did.) This interview is more writing I’ve done in the last 17 months combined. And it reminded me of why I stopped. I’m seeking refuge in mathematics because journalism, at its core, deals primarily with the irreconcilable—politics, poverty, and, for me, football safety and child psychiatry. The arguments never end. There are no right answers; at best, there are only those less wrong. But math? There’s one right answer. You either get it or you don’t. No specious agendas. No disingenuous claptrap. That incontrovertibility is very seductive.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ALAN SCHWARZ:

• Five reasons one should make Scarsdale, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination: 1) The Bronx and Hutchinson river parkways connect you quickly and easily to places far more interesting; 2) The local wine store, Zachy’s, is world-renowned, so you can get hammered with class; 3) People who play platform tennis—both of them—can hit on courts where the game was invented; 4) Beatles fans can visit Scarsdale’s eerie John-and-Paul connection. Yoko Ono lived with her family in Scarsdale in the early 1950s while attending nearby Sarah Lawrence College; Linda McCartney (nee Eastman) graduated from Scarsdale High in the early 1960s. Few people know that bizarre coincidence; 5) See Nos. 1-4.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Walt Jocketty, Will Smith, Ford Fiesta, Scott Pruitt, Ralph Wiley, Agent Clarice Starling, “The Wedding Singer,” Fabolous, Mark St. John, glue guns: Will SmithGlue GunsWalt JockettyFord Fiesta, Ralph Wiley, The others I’ve never heard of, “The Wedding Singer.”

• How did you meet your wife?: Blind date—a quick drink in Manhattan on Sunday, September 9, 2001. We liked each other and made plans for dinner two days later, after she got back from working at, you guessed it, the World Financial Center. She was coming out of the subway when the second plane hit, ran for her life with everyone else, and didn’t get back to her apartment until about 8 p.m. I had left her a voicemail like, “Hey, it’s Alan. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of people to call, but if you get this, I’m hoping I can be somewhere on the list.” It’s kind of weird to call up someone you barely know to ask if they’re dead. She wasn’t. We rescheduled dinner for that Saturday, hit it off, and have been married now for 14 years.

• Three least favorite things about Donald Trump’s wardrobeThe cuff exposes his little tootsie-fingers; We’re probably paying for it; His tie isn’t nearly, nearly, nearly tight enough.

• The world needs to know: What was it like watching Tony Womack play the game of baseball?: I not only watched Womack play baseball, I watched him play in the minors with the Carolina Mudcats. He was a nice little player with well-rounded, average but perfectly entertaining second-base skills. He was the opposite of what we see today, where it’s anathema to actually put the ball in play and run.

• Three athletes who you thought would be superstars—and it didn’t quite work out: My days at Baseball America introduced me to so many phenoms who crashed and burned. I had the privilege of writing the first national profile of Brien Taylor, who would become the Yankees’ No. 1 pick bonus-baby in 1991 but got hurt and never made the majors. I distinctly recall, a few years later, officially rating Ruben Rivera the Yankees’ Top Prospect over a skinny shortstop named Derek Jeter. Most of all, there was a kid at my summer camp in the early 1980s named Darryl Tombacher who was the most ridiculous basketball player any of us could imagine. As if Pete Maravich’s twin brother had materialized in Orford, New Hampshire. If anyone out there knows what happened to Darryl Tombacher, I’d love to know.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never. Mine is seeing a plane crash near me and running. More Ritchie Valens than Buddy Holly.

This is my all-time least-favorite song. Your thoughts?: I like only the Traffic and Blind Faith-era Steve Winwood, the John Barleycorn era. Still, you’re a year off on the worst song ever: “We Built This City” by Starship, which came out in 1985. Most horrifying about that song is that it was written by Bernie Taupin. Oy.

• In exactly 17 words, makes Bip Roberts’ Hall of Fame argument: Speedy second baseman for Padres and Reds hit a career .294, Major League Baseball’s first official BABIP.

• Best advice you ever received: From Sam Vaughan, a family friend and editing legend at Doubleday and Random House. “The people who write books,” he said, “are the people who write books.”

  • Russ Lay

    Do you mean Bip Roberts? Who is Bio?

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life