It has been an exciting week for those of us who worked so hard over the past two years to produce The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer.
After kicking off with our premiere on Oklahoma Educational Television (OETA - PBS) in August, and with stations in North Carolina and Colorado having aired the documentary in September, the beginning of October marks the first full week of broadcasts on PBS stations in more than ten states.
While we are having a hard time keeping up with all the stations that are airing the documentary, there are stations in twelve additional states that are set to air the documentary during the week of October 7th, including our "home" station, WGBH2 in Boston, where it will run from 3 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 13th right before New England football fans click over to CBS's broadcast of the Patriots-Saints game, and right before a rebroadcast of the already controversial Frontline documentary on the National Football League, "League of Denial." (appropriately, many PBS stations are coupling our documentary with "League of Denial," as they make a good pair: one focusing on the past and one looking forward with solutions). By the time the fall football season is over, most of the nation's PBS stations will have broadcast our documentary.
It has also been extremely gratifying to hear so many positive comments about "The Smartest Team" from football fans, parents, athletic trainers, coaches, and players around the country, now that they have had a chance to watch it, and to receive invitations to come speak to their schools or football programs about implementing our Six Pillar approach to comprehensive concussion risk management.
On the other hand, we know that there are those who are not at all happy that we are taking a pro-active, glass-half-full approach to trying to meeting the challenge concussions and head injuries pose in football. In an effort to discredit the "The Smartest Team," it appears that powerful interests in the multi-million business that is Concussion, Inc. are working overtime, both in the Twittersphere, through a whisper campaign, and via other even more insidious back-channel means, to cripple our ability to spread the word about our documentary, including trying to convey to the viewing public the impression that MomsTEAM and I are somehow peddling junk science because, to take one example, (spoiler alert!) they claim that the dramatic year-over-year drop in the concussion rate we documented in the Newcastle High football program was not the product of a controlled, qualitative case study or peer-reviewed research, and that our objectivity has somehow been clouded by alleged conflicts of interest, including asserting that we are merely a cipher or football apologist on the payroll of the National Football League.
Backed by science
We have never claimed that "The Smartest Team" is anything but what it is: a documentary showing how a single high school football team, based on the recommendations of a world-class team of concussion experts, implemented a concussion risk management program that we believe represents the current "gold standard," from teaching players how to tackle without using their heads to strengthening their necks so as they are better able to withstand the forces that cause concussion, from encouraging players to honestly report concussion symptoms to utilizing cutting edge technology in the form of impact sensors to give sideline personnel another tool in their toolbox to employ in identifying athletes who may - emphasis on the word "may" - have sustained impacts of sufficient magnitude that may have resulted in some cases in concussions, so that they may be monitored for signs of concussion or may be asked to undergo a balance, vision, and/or neurocognitive test on the sidelines, the results of which may suggest a removal from play for the remainder of the game and referral to a concussion specialist for formal evaluation away from the sports sideline, which may result in a clinical diagnosis of concussion.
We don't claim that we conducted a controlled study. I am not an epidemiologist, medical doctor, athletic trainer, neuropsychologist or an expert in biomechanics. I am a journalist and youth sports safety advocate and expert. I made "The Smartest Team" to get people to look at football in a new and more pro-active way.
Does The Smartest Team advance a particular point of view? Absolutely. Does it marshal facts in support of that point of view? You bet. But in expressing the view that, as two-time Super Bowl winning running back Howard Griffith says in the narration introducing the last section of the documentary, there are steps that can be taken now to make the sport of football at the high school and youth level safer, we are doing no more than documenting recommendations that, in every single instance, have already been made by leading experts in the field, including medical doctors, physical therapists, strength trainers, athletic trainers, neuropsychologists, equipment manufacturers, and biomechanical experts.
To some extent, one concussion journalist was right when he noted in a recent Tweet that The Smartest Team isn't "bombshell" material, because there is really nothing we say in the documentary that hasn't been said before. What is refreshingly different about our documentary is that, instead of focusing exclusively on, and sensationalizing, the concussion problem, we emphasize solutions.
The challenge we face - that all those who, like us, want to strengthen and preserve the great game of football - is having our message heard. For the most part, the national media doesn't seem interested (surprise) in reporting good news - that there are ways to make football safer - because it is bad news, scary news, sensational news, that sells, and that some in Concussion, Inc. depend for their very existence on promoting.
Admittedly, in an age in which more and more people tend to gravitate towards opposite ends of the spectrum in their opinions on just about anything, in the case of the great debate about football, either urging parents to find another sport for their child to play or extolling its many benefits (extremely well documented, by the way, in Daniel J. Flynn's powerful new book, The War on Football: Saving America's Game) while minimizing its risks, it is hard to be heard above the maddening crowd when one occupies the reasonable, pragmatic, pro-active, middle.
From my vantage point, having spent a lot of time with the wonderful football community in Newcastle, Oklahoma, from talking to football parents across the country, and from becoming educated about the actual facts about the safety of football, I believe that, not only is football a sport worth saving, but that those who call for radical changes in the way it is played, and by whom, or for it to simply be abolished, represent a small, but extremely vocal and influential minority. It is therefore essential that what Flynn calls the "tired media narrative that accentuates the negative and ignores the positive" be balanced by the facts about football, which are "overwhelmingly positive, if well hidden." That is precisely what The Smartest Team seeks to accomplish.