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‘We’ll Be Back After This Concussion’

Football announcers care about brain injuries. But they often lack the vocabulary to talk about them. Chris Nowinski has a new program that’s trying to help them.

Michael Weinstein

Last month, at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, 15 students were performing a textual analysis on the words of two giants of the academy: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo.

The day before, Nantz and Romo had announced a Cowboys-Redskins game for CBS. In the first quarter, Dak Prescott had run up the left sideline. As he dove toward the first-down marker, Prescott’s helmet slammed into the shoulder of Redskins cornerback Greg Stroman. “Oh,” said Romo said on broadcast, “that’s a concussion.”

“Yeah, he’s going to be done,” Romo continued, as Prescott struggled to his feet. “Look it—he doesn’t know where he is.” After a few replays of the hit and a Cowboys punt, Nantz threw it to an ad for Lowe’s.

When CBS came back from commercial, Prescott was sitting on the bench with his teammates. Romo chuckled and said: “He told them, ‘I’m fine.’ … I just think that was a big blow that you gotta, you know, account for. But he’s a tough guy. He may be OK.”

Tracy Wolfson, the CBS sideline reporter, reported that Prescott had undergone and passed the NFL’s mandatory concussion screening. Yet, later, the network’s cameras caught Prescott using smelling salts as he ran back onto the field. “It means there’s still cobwebs ...” Nantz said. “I’m surprised he’s back out there. Went through it all [the screening], though.”

At Northwestern, Brandon Boyd, a program coordinator at the nonprofit Concussion Legacy Foundation, had brought up the sequence because he thought it was a useful case study. Romo and Nantz hadn’t done a bad job of describing the hit. After League of Denial and 100 sympathetic profiles of ex-NFL players, their commentary dripped with sympathy for Prescott. But as Boyd noted, they violated three different rules of talking about concussions on the air.

First off, Romo had tried to diagnose a concussion from the booth. (Prescott, it turned out, didn’t have a concussion.) Romo had walked right up to equating playing with a concussion with being “tough.” And Nantz had used an old, dishonored term that was once applied to brain injuries: “cobwebs.” As Boyd told the class, “Everyone wants to do the right thing … but that gap in education is certainly there.”

As J.A. Adande, a Northwestern associate professor and ESPN veteran, looked on, Boyd cued up videos and plowed through more case studies. Turner’s Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller watched Jaylen Brown land on his head after a dunk. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit described a Wisconsin safety, Michael Caputo, lining up into the wrong backfield. Fox’s Mark Schlereth watched Texans quarterback Tom Savage go limp in the end zone after his helmet slammed against the turf. In every case, you could hear the announcers’ big, confident voices suddenly grow quiet and cautious.

Chris Nowinski, the cofounder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, designed the course as a corrective. Every so often, TV announcers find they lack the vocabulary to talk about an issue that’s before them. Fifteen years ago, the issue was advanced stats. More recently, they’ve sputtered as they talk about domestic violence. Nowinski feels announcers have reached a similar point with concussions. “There is no formal training program to talk about what you should and shouldn’t do,” he said.

Nowinksi told Bob Costas he wanted to start a college-level program to train young announcers. Costas referred Nowinksi to the Newhouse School at his alma mater, Syracuse. This year, pilot classes were held at Syracuse and Northwestern, and in Andrea Kremer’s journalism class at Boston University. On Thursday, Nowinski, Costas, Dr. Robert Cantu, and others will announce the creation of a training course that can be used by any college. Even a big-time network announcer can take a version of the course as mid-career education.

“I always say to my students, ‘Words matter,’” said Kremer, an announcer on Amazon Prime’s broadcast of Thursday Night Football. “They have power and they have meaning.” The idea underlying the project is that we football fans are in a giant classroom learning about the effects of concussions. TV announcers can be our teachers. But, first, somebody has to teach them.

Talking about a concussion during a game cuts to the tension of being a football announcer. The announcer has to both exalt the sport and be sympathetic to its carnage; they must have the voice of a salesman and the trappings (or, at least, the haircut) of a TV journalist.

Last November, Costas, who had talked about concussions several times on the air, said at a University of Maryland symposium that football “destroys people’s brains.” NBC approached Costas and said he might not be the ideal host of the Super Bowl pregame show, where he had been scheduled to fill in for Mike Tirico. “They thought, Well, people will not feel like you’re the right person to preside over a daylong celebration of football,” Costas said. “Not only did I not take exception to that. I agreed with it.”

Costas continued: “It’s a general rule in television that, yeah, we can talk all day long about whether the ref blew the charge as opposed to the blocking call. Or whether that was or was not a catch. Or how we feel about Deflategate. When it gets to stuff that might question the foundation of things, that isn’t the first place that networks in general want to go.”

TV has curtailed some of its worst impulses. The ESPN crew no longer yells, “He got … jacked … up!” when a player collapses to the ground. Two helmets no longer collide in the opening tease of Monday Night Football. Yet this spring, when Kevin Love was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol during a playoff series against the Celtics, Turner’s Shaquille O’Neal quipped, “Ain’t nothing holding me from no Game 7. I’m going straight to Walgreens, get some Advil.” That is a textbook example of equating playing with a concussion with toughness.

Today, it’s more typical to see an announcer fall over himself to be sympathetic. You could hear the tone in Herbstreit’s voice change when an ESPN replay found Wisconsin’s Michael Caputo wandering through the opposing backfield. In September, Fox’s Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis watched T.J. Lang, the Lions guard, get hit in the helmet and then come off the field blinking rapidly. (The Detroit Free Press reported that it was “the sixth documented brain injury” of Lang’s career.)

One problem announcers have is that they’re working in a medium that by its nature is unsympathetic. Football is on TV, remember, because it’s a great way to sell beer. In September, the Chiefs were playing the 49ers, and linebacker Reuben Foster got hurt while trying to tackle Kareem Hunt. As Foster lay on the field, Fox cut to a split-screen so the network could squeeze in an ad for a new series. The series was 9-1-1.

The networks used to be criticized for lingering on gruesome injuries. Now, I find the network cameras can’t wait to look away: to a commercial or a graphics package—anything but the player sprawled out on the turf. When Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey was injured this year against Florida State, the exchange between ESPN’s Mark Jones and Dusty Dvoracek was typical:

Dvoracek: “They’re checkin’ him for concussion on the sideline over here right in front of us.”

Jones: “Yeah, see how those pupils dilate and how they react.”

Dvoracek: “Directly in front of us. He’s up to his feet.”

Jones: “Let’s go back to the studio with Adnan.”

Talking about a concussion on the air doesn’t fit with the tone of sports TV, either. It’s not just that game broadcasts have zippier music and graphics. Commercials are now crammed with CGI, or else laugh lines that are delivered in a nearly identical, deadpan style. There’s very little aesthetic difference between the ads and the football game. The only possible downer is an injury.

Earlier this season, the Giants were playing on Sunday Night Football. Center Jon Halapio lay on the turf after a play, and NBC quickly cut to a commercial for the Kevin Hart movie Night School. Purposefully or not, the ad acted as a narcotizing agent for the violent act we’d just watched. Though Halapio turned out to have broken his leg and ankle, I came back to the game feeling chipper, even mildly amused. Dilly dilly!

Announcing has moments when it becomes something like art. But a lot of it is pure memorization and recitation. As you listen to games, you can hear an almost mechanical click as the play-by-play announcer says his bit about how challenges are handled by the booth in the last two minutes of the half. The team behind Nowinski’s project sees no reason those same memorization skills can’t be trained on proper terminology for concussions.

“We have to know this just as well as we know the players’ names and just as well as we know the rules of the game,” said Olivia Stomski, the director of the Newhouse Sports Media Center at Syracuse, who taught the concussion workshop to her students last month.

Mark Schlereth’s call of Tom Savage’s concussion last season was a good case in point. On the replay, Schlereth could see Savage’s hands sticking out in front of his body as he lay on the ground. Schlereth said: “Anytime you get the hands shakin’ and stuff, you always worry about, did his helmet hit the back of the turf? Is there potential for a concussion?”

Schlereth was doing two things well: describing what he was seeing and raising the specter of (if not actually diagnosing) a concussion. What Schlereth didn’t do was name the hand movement Savage was making, which is called the fencing response.

“When Tom Savage is seizing on the field,” Boyd said, “Mark Schlereth sees that and says, ‘That’s the sign of a concussion.’ But he doesn’t really know what’s actually happening. It’s filling in those gaps. If you know what’s happening and you’re able to articulate it, that’s all we’d ask the media to do.”

Color analysts are interesting figures in the concussion dialogue. In theory, nobody is better equipped to talk about the effects of concussions. But many analysts come to the booth with their heads filled with coachspeak. “A lot of the people who are analysts are former players rather than formally trained broadcasters,” said Costas. “And this is a generalization, but they may be used to using terms they heard or used themselves when they were playing. ‘He got his bell rung.’”

Color analysts are also feeling their way through television. Last season, during the Bills-Jaguars playoff game, Tyrod Taylor’s head got slammed into the ground when he was tackled by Dante Fowler. “That’s a pretty decent concussion most likely right there,” Romo said on the broadcast. That time, his prediction was right.

As you watch the foundation’s case studies, you notice something interesting: Concussions change the power structure of announcing teams. As Nantz and Romo showed, it’s hard for the stars of a broadcast to say much of anything from the booth. But CBS’s sideline reporter, Tracy Wolfson, could get close to the Cowboys’ medical examination tent and provide factual information.

Similarly, when T.J. Lang suffered a concussion, Fox’s Pam Oliver described what he looked like as he walked off the field. An NFL broadcast conspires to make a sideline reporter a bit player; a concussion makes them—for a moment, anyway—indispensable.

Nowinski and his media partners developed 22 rules for announcers to consider when talking about concussions. Happily, a few of them are almost outdated. Outside of Gus Johnson at the 2012 Big Ten championship game, you rarely hear a high-profile announcer say a player got his “bell rung” anymore.

However, you do hear announcers use “concussion” and “head injury” interchangeably. A head injury is a vague term that can mean anything from a laceration to a broken orbital bone. The Concussion Legacy Foundation’s guidelines say it’s more accurate to say “concussion” or “brain injury.”

The foundation says announcers shouldn’t ascribe heroism to a player who plays with a concussion (he’s “tough,” etc.), or, if the player sits out, speculate about when he ought to return to the field. In August, Yankees announcer Michael Kay shamed outfielder Clint Frazier for sitting out with a concussion, leading Frazier to fire back at Kay on Twitter. (Kay later apologized.)

An announcer shouldn’t try to diagnose a concussion from the booth. As the foundation’s curriculum notes, “Most concussions are not diagnosed during the game.” For once, the old broadcast-booth cliché is true: “You really hate to speculate” because you often get it wrong.

If an announcer doesn’t know whether a player has a concussion, he can at least say whether the team and officials have followed the NFL’s protocols. In 2015, when Case Keenum’s head was slammed against the turf against Baltimore, Fox’s Daryl Johnston described the injury and talked about the threat of a concussion. But the game was tied, and Johnston didn’t wonder why the NFL’s spotters had let Keenum back under center.

“It’s more effective if it’s called as it happens than it is in the newspaper the next day,” said Nowinski. “It’s a wider audience and in real time. And it’s more embarrassing for the league.”

Last November, in a Thursday Night Football game against the Cardinals, Russell Wilson took a helmet to the chin and was directed to the sideline for evaluation by referee Walt Anderson. Wilson ducked into the tent for a split second, but ran back to the huddle before anyone could check him for a concussion. NBC’s Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth were incredulous:

Collinsworth: “What did they do over there?”

Tirico: “Nothing. He went into the tent and came right back out real quick.”

Collinsworth: “By himself. He went into the tent by himself!”

After a commercial, Collinsworth added: “It’s like they did the appearance of a concussion check but never did it because Russell Wilson thought he was fine and wanted to get back on the field.” The Seahawks were fined $100,000 for failing to apply the protocol.

A savvy announcer can even weigh different league protocols against each other. ESPN NBA reporter Lisa Salters, who works the sidelines on Monday Night Football, watched Kevin Love take an elbow in the face during last year’s Pacers-Cavs playoff series. Love looked woozy. When a Cavs official told Salters that Love was eligible to come back into the game, Salters pointed out on the broadcast that if Love were in the NFL, he’d be sequestered in concussion protocol.

Concussion training can apply equally to future TV types and print drudges. “As a journalist, you don’t want to be the mere means of conveyance for a message,” Adande said. “But you do want to be the champions of accuracy. That’s why I had no qualms doing this, because it’s ultimately about educating our reporters about how to be the most accurate and the most informative on this topic that wasn’t even part of the discussion 20 years ago.”

Anyone who expects a TV announcer to see a concussion and transform into a Fainaru brother will be disappointed. As Joe Tessitore told me recently, announcers are less journalists than capitalists.

“We aren’t trying to turn broadcasters into advocates,” Nowinski said. “We are trying to give them the tools to be the best broadcasters and journalists they can be.” It’s a noble goal and also a kind of admission. Information about concussions has been pounded into us by League of Denial, a Will Smith star vehicle, and Nowinski’s own work. Yet what Nantz and Romo say every Sunday will reach a bigger audience and probably have a far greater impact than most of it. It’s almost like someone ought to institute a protocol.

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