Sportswriter Ben Shpigel Talks Concussions, Clicks

In Gasson Hall on Thursday, Ben Shpigel, a sports reporter for The New York Times, spoke to students about his experiences in the sports media field, specifically the changes taking place in both the NFL and sports journalism.

Shpigel began reporting for The Times in 2005 as a beat reporter for the New York Mets. He switched to the crosstown Yankees in 2010, and has covered the New York Jets since 2011. In November, Shpigel shadowed Terence Newman, a 38-year-old cornerback in the NFL, as part of the “Limitless” series, documenting the secret behind Newman’s unusual longevity in a contact sport.

“[Terrence Newman] has this fastidious dedication to his body and his mind [in] trying to go ahead and prevent all these other [cornerbacks] from taking his job,” Shpigel said about the NFL veteran.

Shpigel had the rare opportunity to look behind the curtain of secrecy associated with training in the NFL, and discovered how crucial the mind is for a sustained career in professional sports. Newman trains the same way as any successful player—he gets plenty of sleep, eats healthily, and uses acupuncture and “cupping” to rebound each week from the physical beating of the previous game. Though Newman has been fortunate not to receive a major injury in 14 seasons, the general wear on his body over time has limited his ability, even with careful management of his physique.

Ultimately, Newman’s football IQ, sharpened by his dedication to watching game film every day of the week leading up to a game, allows him to outsmart opposing wide receivers. Shpigel found it was this feature of Newman’s prep that allowed the cornerback to play at his highest level, despite a habit for “lots of red wine.”

The health of the brain is critical for Newman and any NFL player, so the potential for concussions to break players makes it a prominent topic in modern analysis of the game. For example, the debilitating effects of CTE, a brain disease contracted by taking repeated impacts to the head, have become a topic of great concern within the media and the sport as a whole. But Shpigel has witnessed a sense of apathy toward the issue from players for whom football has been their life’s work, and greatest achievement.

“They might trade a concussion here [or there] for the sake of earning a couple million dollars and retaining a roster spot,” Shpigel said.

Knowing the risks and choosing to ignore them is one thing, but ignorance of the problem in the past has hurt countless players. In his coverage of the Jets, Shpigel met with now-retired offensive lineman D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who conveyed his incomplete understanding of the concussion crisis.

“He had presumed that you only sustain injury by these big, cataclysmic hits, instead of all the little collisions play-to-play he endured as a lineman,” Shpigel said.

The NFL has made efforts to curtail the concussion epidemic, but past players had little defense, especially with the lack of evidence. Sports media has been instrumental in disseminating new evidence and stories about the problem.

“I am much more careful now not to glorify [a big hit] itself,” Shpigel said.

He believes that football does not need an over-emphasis on its physical brutality, especially with its long-term damage to players, to remain entertaining. As the NFL has been reforming with respect to this problem, however, sports reporting has also transformed with the advent of social media and the prevalence of video sharing sites. Misleading headlines, “hot takes,” and an overall priority for reporters to obtain the highest viewership possible leads them to follow the controversial rather than the meaningful.

This can lead to a betrayal of trust between the media and the players. Shpigel mediates potential distrust by respecting his access to the players, and by reporting what they would prefer to be said about them.

“What I normally do if I [am publishing] something sensitive or that can be very critical, I may give that person a heads up … and if [they] want a chance to respond, I’m happy to listen to anything that [they] have to say,” Shpigel said.