ESPN, Sports Reporters Fooled by Exaggerated Claims That Football Causes Debilitating Medical Condition

People who cover sports for a living can easily tell the difference between “running out the clock” and “running up the score,” but a recent story stating that eight living National Football League players had tested positive for a disease that can only be detected during an autopsy demonstrated that these reporters shouldn't dabble into matters of science without verifying their information.

Initial reports indicated that NFL Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure and Leonard Marshall -- as well as five other athletes -- were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder that is only detectable after the diseased person has died.

According to an article on Thursday by Daniel Flynn, “ESPN got punked. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, Sporting News’s David Steele, the New York Times’s Frank Bruni and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahisi Coates fell for the hoax. So did ABC, NBC and CBS News, for that matter.”

“ESPN’s Outside the Lines, in more cautiously, if still misleadingly, first reporting on the claim, characterized the initial batch of test results as 'marking the first time doctors found signs of the crippling disease in living former players,'” Flynn stated before adding that the “sports scribes” had “sprinted ahead of the science.”

The author of a new book entitled The War on Football: Saving America's Game then stated that “[t]he strongest contradiction to this supposed scientific breakthrough ironically comes from the very scientists claiming credit for it.”

“In an article published after the majority of these eight living players received their tests, several of the same scientists involved in the project -- including Bennet Omalu and Julian Bailes -- wrote inthe  Frontiers of Neurology journal that 'diagnosis of CTE remains autopsy based,' there is a 'lack of specific diagnostic criteria required for pre-mortem clinical diagnosis,' and 'currently, no accepted method of diagnosing CTE until post-mortem pathological analysis has been conducted,'” Flynn stated.

He also noted:

The unusual decision to release this claim to the sports press, rather than hold it up for scrutiny in an academic publication first, speaks to the interests -- financial rather than scientific -- of the TauMark company behind the test.

The writers and editors at sports publications demonstrate a track record of deferentially accepting whatever information, however outlandish, presented to them by capitalists cloaked in lab coats.

No one apparently bothered to visit TauMark’s website, Flynn stated, which includes the CTE disclaimer: “A definite diagnosis is only possible with autopsy when tau proteins are found in distinctive brain areas.”

The author also asserted that the headlines on this story were “unambiguous” and cited several examples: “CTE Diagnosed in Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett” (CBS News); “Tony Dorsett, Leonard Marshall, Joe DeLamielleure Diagnosed with CTE, Per Report” (SBNation.com); and “Tony Dorsett Has CTE” (TheAtlantic.com).

Meanwhile, a study published earlier this year of six former Canadian Football League players “demonstrated why the unchecked boasts are not only wrong but reckless,” Flynn noted.

In that research, nine Canadian scientists found that “a history of participation in professional football and a history of multiple concussions, combined with positive clinical signs and symptoms of progressive neurodegenerative disease, were not inevitably associated in each of the six cases with a post-mortem diagnosis of CTE.”

In fact, half the damaged brains the Canadian group inspected showed no signs of CTE, Flynn said. “Because CTE’s symptoms mirror those of other neurodegenerative diseases, flipping a coin to determine whether any of the players suffered from CTE would have been as effective as a pre-mortem diagnosis.”

The author concluded his article by referring to the symptoms of anger, poor judgment, irritability and memory loss being endured by the former running back for the Dallas Cowboys:

Tony Dorsett’s troubling condition, like so much surrounding CTE, remains a mystery. The prevalence of the disease in society and in sports, what causes it, the role of genetics, and even something as basic as a commonly accepted definition await scientific answers.

Satisfying the scientific method requires more than making an unverified claim. Headlines aren’t so demanding.

As NewsBusters previously reported, failing to confirm information before going public with “news” can lead to negative consequences, including embarrassment and lawsuits. It's always worth the effort to make sure your story is correct, especially when it deals with a subject you don't know much about.

Randy Hall
Randy Hall