Friday, September 30, 2011

Pearlman's "Definitive" Payton Biography Ignores One Very Important Subject

Jeff Pearlman has received criticism for some of the salacious details he included in his new Walter Payton biography but the Chicago Tribune's David Haugh points out that the biggest problem with the book is not so much the subjects Pearlman discussed but rather one very important subject that Pearlman ignored: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)--or, in layman's terms, the brain damage caused by receiving repeated blows to the head. There is a long, growing list of retired NFL players who seem to have suffered from CTE (I deliberately qualified that statement because I am not a doctor and because a thorough medical examination and/or autopsy is required to make such a diagnosis); Mike Webster is perhaps one of the earliest well known cases of an NFL player who had impaired brain function after he retired, while Dave Duerson is one of the most recent cases. Is it possible that at least some of Payton's later actions and behaviors may have been related to CTE? Haugh writes:

I am not a best-selling author like Pearlman. But I wonder how anybody writes a 460-page biography about a running back who carried the ball 3,838 times and ignores the possibility of brain trauma later impairing Payton's judgment. How are other salacious details revealed in excerpts deemed relevant but a possible contributor to why Payton's life was spinning out of control omitted entirely?

"I didn't address it because it would have been pure speculation since no one studied his brain after he died,'' Pearlman responded via email. "It was impossible. Certainly, however, it entered my mind.''

That notion never entered the book. Not that broaching the possible presence of CTE would excuse Payton for his infidelities or abuse of painkillers. But mentioning a proven contemporary cause of NFL retiree problems might have helped people understand the enigma at the crux of the book. Or provided a necessary layer of context.

The more I read and hear about Pearlman defending his book, the less I like Pearlman and the lower opinion I have of his work. Perhaps Pearlman's book is well-researched and accurate--but since he did not interview Payton's mother, wife or brother it is safe to assume that a lot of what Pearlman asserts is either speculation or the product of interviews with second-hand and/or unreliable sources. My problem with Pearlman is that he portrays himself like some great writer defending the bastions of journalistic integrity against the benighted souls who dare to challenge him; Pearlman huffily declares that as a biographer his job is to write the truth, not to comfort those who view Payton as a flawless icon, but Pearlman is not a world class biographer who is penning detailed accounts of the lives of politicians or religious leaders: Pearlman is a generic sportswriter--the Chicago Tribune's John Kass describes Pearlman's recent defense of the Payton book as "just about the most awful writing I've ever seen outside a 12-step Rod McKuen program"--who has raised his profile by writing warts and all biographies of famous athletes.

Pearlman did not write Payton's life story because of some great mission to deliver truth to the world (as if the world really needs to know the details of Payton's marital life)--if that were the case then Pearlman would have taken the time to investigate CTE, a subject that might not have sold any more copies of the book but is a life and death issue that clearly must be covered in any so-called "definitive" Payton life story. Payton retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher and he may have suffered permanent brain damage while accomplishing that feat but Pearlman could not tear himself away from researching Payton's marital life long enough to speak with Chris Nowinski or Dr. Robert Cantu? Pearlman wrote the Payton book to make money and hopefully (from his standpoint) receive more money to write his next book. Payton's marital life is a subject suitable for the tabloids, while CTE is a subject deserving investigation by serious journalists; Pearlman's choices make it clear how he should be categorized as a writer.

I have covered the NBA as a credentialed writer for several years. I have never asked any players or coaches about their private lives; frankly, if one of them started talking about the subject I would try to change the topic to something else. I think that it is possible to cover sports very well without delving into private matters (the obvious exceptions would be when such private matters involve the commission of a crime and/or clearly are having an impact on the player's performance above and beyond the normal "drama" that is present in everyone's life)--but it may not be possible to cover sports in that fashion and make huge dollars: our society has a low collective attention span for important matters combined with a seemingly insatiable appetite for gossip, dirt and faux "reality" shows.

Pearlman has chosen a different, more high profile path than the one I have selected; he has every right to make as much money at his chosen profession as he can and hopefully he is every bit as conscientious as he says he is regarding his research but it is repulsive to hear him act like revealing the intimate details of Payton's private life is some kind of great public service; there is no compelling public interest or need to know these things, whether or not they are true, and the primary reason that these things are in the book is that sleaze sells. Pearlman did not have to portray Payton as some kind of saint but it is possible to allude to Payton's flaws without mentioning every last sordid detail--and it is particularly disgusting that Pearlman has the gall to say that he worries about how such revelations may affect Payton's children. I have a simple solution to that quandary: leave the gory details out of the book! It would have been more than enough for Pearlman to indicate that even though Payton enjoyed a public reputation as a good family man the reality is that Payton's domestic life was less than tranquil; Payton's widow has admitted that much and nothing else really needs to be said. If Pearlman truly were concerned about the impact that his book might have on Payton's innocent family members then Pearlman could have returned his advance and declined to finish the book.

I have no problem with Pearlman cashing his large check and enjoying the fruits of Sports Illustrated's pimping of his product as long as Pearlman has no problem admitting exactly what service he performed to receive that check. Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, we know what Pearlman is but we just don't know how much he got paid.

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