Travis Bell, Janelle Applequist, and Christian Dotson-Pierson

Mar 16, 2020

CTE, Media, and the NFL

Framing a Public Health Crisis as a Football Epidemic

Lexington Books 2019

purchase at Today we are joined by Travis Bell, Janelle Applequist, and Christian Dotson-Pierson to discuss their new book CTE, Media, and the NFL: Framing a Public Health Crisis as a Football Epidemic (Lexington Books, 2019). In our conversation, we discussed public misconceptions about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the media’s problematic connection of CTE with the NFL and concussions, and the league’s efforts to produce alternative histories of CTE. In CTE, Media, and the NFL, Bell, Applequist and Dotson-Pierson use media theory to unpack reporting on CTE. They explain the long history of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, beginning with punch-drunk diagnosis among interwar boxers to the first female brain with confirmed CTE from a victim of domestic violence. Through a close reading of over seven hundred articles from six American newspapers, painstakingly coded for dozens of variables, they show how the media wrote about it. In these stories football plays a specific role in shaping American notions of masculinity, an athlete’s gender shapes reporting on their head injuries, and the celebrity framing the shape of the narrative. The authors use earlier studies of the HIV/AIDs crisis and Big Tobacco’s battle to obfuscate the link between smoking and cancer to better understand the dangers of CTE coverage. They argue that the media’s framing of CTE as a health crisis, and the onslaught of incomplete information about the disease, has led to an availability cascade of problematic or wrong information. Most notably – CTE is linked with concussions in the reporting but is caused by all kinds of head trauma. The NFL’s efforts to muddle the science of CTE proved less effective than Big Tobacco’s and now the league may be over-connected to CTE to the detriment of athletes in other sports, military veterans, and even victims of domestic abuse whose stories are largely ignored.
Keith Rathbone is a lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His manuscript, entitled A Nation in Play: Physical Culture, the State, and Society during France’s Dark Years, 1932-1948, examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at

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