Punked: ESPN, Sports Reporters Falsely Report Tony Dorsett Has 'CTE'

ESPN got punked. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, The 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.

No, Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett did not test positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

By reporting that Dorsett, fellow Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, and six other players had been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease, sports scribes sprinted ahead of the science, which is currently incapable of determining whether a living person suffers from CTE. 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.” The strange use of the word “signs” is a sign that the doctors didn’t discover what nearly every major news outlet in the United States reports them as discovering.

The 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 in Frontiers of Neurology 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.”

What celebrity scientists say to their peers in academic journals contradicts what they say to sports journalists in the popular press. “Until we had the ability to see it in a living, breathing person,” Bailes told ESPN, “we had no chance of helping them, we had no chance of really understanding what happens to the disease.” But in that 2013 study Bailes, Omalu, and coauthors describe proposed methods to identify the enfeebling disease in the living as “intriguing,” “particularly interesting,” and “promising” but never proven.

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. Bleacher Report, however captivating their slideshows of NFL cheerleaders, just doesn’t approach the British Journal of Sports Medicine in the rigor of its vetting process. The former may know sports; they don’t know science. And that may be the point of showcasing the findings before the jocks instead of the nerds. When the science doesn’t pass muster, muster those who didn’t pass science.

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. And the incurious journalists, oblivious to the brazen conflict of interest at the heart of entrepreneurial science whose profits depend on positive publicity, served as boosters just as the salesmen-scientists selectively releasing the information to them had anticipated. None apparently bothered to visit TauMark’s website, which includes the CTE disclaimer: “A definite diagnosis is only possible with autopsy when tau proteins are found in distinctive brain areas.”

The headlines were unambiguous: “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). The fine print occasionally proved more nuanced. CBS’s Ryan Jaslow, for instance, noted, “Attempts to diagnose the disease in the living have been ongoing.” In contrast to the headline, the article claimed the players “were diagnosed with having signs of the disease that typically can only be definitively diagnosed through autopsies of the brains.”

What does it mean to be diagnosed with signs of a disease rather than with the disease itself? How does Jaslow reconcile his passage noting that CTE “typically can only be definitively diagnosed through autopsies” with the surrounding article reporting its diagnosis in several alive-and-not-so-well athletes? Why does the headline maintain that CTE has been discovered in the living while the article characterizes that pursuit as “ongoing”? Like the businessmen academics, their unwitting media flaks speak in conflicting voices.

Just as the press touts an unpublished, nonexistent study by researchers standing to profit from the claims, actual peer-reviewed science clashing with the mere claims of Bailes, Omalu, and company goes overlooked. A study published earlier this year of six former CFL players demonstrated why the unchecked boasts are not only wrong but reckless. Nine Canadian scientists found in “Absence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Retired Football Players with Multiple Concussions and Neurological Symptomatology” 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 6 cases with a post-mortem diagnosis of CTE.”

Case #5, who exhibited “anger, poor judgment, and irritability” and whose “memory worsened” to the point where he frequently got lost, almost reads as if cribbed from Tony Dorsett’s description of his cognitive ailments. Though the anonymous player’s lengthy football career, history of concussions, and extreme decline might have screamed CTE to the TauMark researchers, Case #5’s brain exhibited no evidence of the disease upon autopsy. In fact, half the damaged brains the Canadian group inspected showed no signs of CTE. 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.

Might Tony Dorsett, like Case #5, be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s rather than CTE? Since the symptoms of both maladies overlap, we won’t know until doctors can actually examine his brain, i.e., after Dorsett passes away. But based on his discussions with the CTE doctors, Dorsett clearly believes he has CTE—and that the organ damage can somehow be cured. 

“I actually was told [by researchers] that it can be reversed,” the Cowboys standout told the Dallas Morning News. “I was like, ‘What?’ They said, ‘Yeah, it can be reversed, slowed down, stopped.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, so we need to get on out of here and get on that program immediately.’”

Upon which of TauMark’s buckboard wagons can the snake-oil elixir reversing brain damage be found?

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. In pointing out that science hasn’t established CTE’s cause, the consensus statement of last November’s International Conference on Concussion in Sport tellingly pointed to “media pressure” hyping “the fears of parents/athletes” regarding CTE. Surely an untested test uplifting the hopes of damaged players appears as the flipside to journalists preying on fears that the best in sports medicine warned us about in Switzerland.  

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

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013).


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