How do you cover a sport believed to be inherently dangerous, but that millions of people still watch—and kids still play?
Accurately. That’s Bob Costas’s answer. The legendary broadcaster is helping brain health activist Chris Nowinski and the Concussion Legacy Foundation educate media members on current concussion science via a newly launched program. “The idea is not to proselytize,” Costas said. “The idea is to make sure the game commentary is informed, and then people can draw their own conclusions about whether they want their kids to play.”
He equates broadcasters studying the topic with becoming comfortable explaining the infield fly rule or an inside zone run. It’s about getting the facts straight. As Nowinski puts it, “We are absolutely not trying to turn the broadcasters into advocates.” But of course, they haven’t spent more than a year buildling a curriculum around zone blitz awareness. The facts alone get the message across.
The CLF’s guideline for broadcasters includes a reminder that “remaining in the game after a concussion can end a career or cause death” (emphasis theirs) as well as a call to “use the word concussion or brain injury” rather than “bell-ringer.”
Professor Olivia Stomski, the director of Syracuse’s sports media center, was one of the first to pilot the program, along with classes at Northwestern and Boston University. She cringed when she first heard a concussion referred to as a brain injury and she said her students did as well. “‘Brain injury’ sounds scary,” Stomski said at a press conference Thursday. “And that’s the point. It is scary and it is accurate.”
The program is professional development for broadcasters, Nowinski said. But it’s more, too. “We’ve identified early on that announcers and the media have a really critical role in helping change the culture around concussions,” he said. “They can be leaders in changing the conversation on a very critical public health issue.”
This media project intentionally sidesteps the topic of CTE, which is increasingly seen as a related but separate discussion from concussions. Nowinski says the disease believed to be connected to subconcussive hits isn’t as often part of an NFL broadcast, and research into the nature of that connection remains controversial. However, he’s hopeful that improved awareness of one issue can also help his fight on the other.
The CLF is 11 years old, and yet Nowinski still cites studies showing that children aren’t receiving concussion educations. Even half of youth coaches aren’t formally trained, he says. So he’s turning to the biggest platform in this country—football games, the most popular show on television—to get his message across. The league itself obviously has its own teaching mission. But commentators have a responsibility to tell the truth, Nowinski believes, to report the facts, “to recognize how important they are to families at home in terms of their ability to handle the brain injuries that occur in their own lives.” Which raises the question…
Is Joe Buck responsible for describing a Steelers touchdown, or is he witnessing well-paid men collide into each other once again for the enjoyment of gamblers and the profit of beer makers? Is it acceptable to laugh about a player running to the wrong sideline after making a tackle, or ought that be pointed out as the sign of another potential brain injury on a football field?
Nowinski and Costas agree there is an element of entertainment to be respected—that the place for heavy discussion is during documentaries or interviews, not amid live action. And yet they both know that the telecasts could be more influential than the other options—and that education is critical. As Dr. Robert Cantu put it at Thursday’s announcement, “We can be saving lives.”
Returning to Costas and the question of how to cover football games, his advice differs from his action. The four-time Sportscaster of the Year wants others to broadcast the game accurately, but his personal answer to the question is: Not at all. Costas’ response to football’s violence was begging off the sport in 1993 and again leaving the NFL behind this year after saying the game “destroys people’s brains.”
Yet the sport and its impact can’t be ignored. Costas wants to continue pushing the ball forward. So he, the CLF, and universities are putting the questions before announcers.
Do you know what a concussion is and what its symptoms are?
Do you know the NFL’s protocol for handling one?
Do you know your duty?