Ryan Wood, a Green Bay Packers beat reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, covers the day-in, day-out elements of NFL football in the league’s smallest outpost.
He worked the sports beat at the DeKalb (Illinois) Daily Chronicle, where he covered Northern Illinois University athletics. He also covered the athletic programs at the University of South Carolina and Auburn University before taking on his current job covering the Packers. He has earned multiple awards for his reporting on the team as well as his coverage of the retirement and hall-of-fame moments of players.
Sports journalism requires heavy reliance on quick-hit social media posts and deadline-pounding stories from games, something Wood has perfected over his time in Green Bay. What he thought might be another quick-hit story turned into one of the longest ones of his life: an 18-month reporting journey into the NFL’s concussion settlement with former players and how the league was dodging many players’ claims. His reporting took him from former players and league offices to lawyers and concussion experts to fully understand what was happening with this settlement.
Wood was nice enough to submit to an email interview to give us an inside look at how the story started, what he dealt with throughout the process of building it and some tips on how student journalists can do some quality investigative journalism on their own.
You mentioned when you shared this on social media that you thought this might be a quick story, but it quickly evolved into something that took 18 months of your life. How did you find this story and how did it evolve to the piece that you published?
“The story found me more than I found it. Seems the best stories tend to do that. I was on the phone with an NFL agent at the end of April, just after the 2020 draft, when the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round. A story like this was the furthest thing from my mind, but then I got an email forwarded from my editor. It was just a tip that Jim Capuzzi, the son of then-88-year-old former Packers player Camillo Capuzzi, was having difficulties with the NFL’s concussion settlement.
“My first reaction was that there must be something this family was missing. I certainly did not expect it to become a story, much less one that would engulf 5,500 words and 18 months of my attention. I would simply send an email and get an answer, I thought. I emailed Carl Francis, communications director for the NFL’s player association. This seemed like an issue the NFLPA would be interesting in helping solve.
“When I did not hear back, that was my first sign there was something more here.”
The thing that I noticed was the number of former players who spoke at length with you about their personal issues, their struggles after they retired and their battles with the NFL. How did you get these people to agree to work with you and what did you do to establish trust with them, especially after they had all of those rough experiences in life?
“In reporting, the most important ingredient for cooperation is one word: motivation. A source must be motivated to help. What’s in it for them?
“These former players obviously had a great deal of motivation. They felt like the NFL and claims administrator BrownGreer was not paying money they were owed. The more I spoke with former players and their families, though, the more I came to realize the thing they wanted almost as much as the financial assistance is to be listened to.
“Many of these retired players feel like they’re living in the dark. They’ve gone from adulation, from playing inside stadiums packed with tens of thousands of fans, like modern gladiators, to the obscurity of retirement. Most of them are dealing with significant health issues, sometimes health issues they don’t even understand, and the realities of their situation are unknown to the public. I think they trusted me to tell their stories because I was genuine. The same thing with lead attorney Christopher Seeger giving me 20 minutes on the record.
“I approached this story from a genuine interest in understanding and being fair to every side, and I think that goes a long way when people feel like they’re not being listened to.”
The NFL is a key player in this and yet they didn’t seem all that interested in participating. What steps did you take in trying to get an official league response and how did the league treat your requests? Also, have you received any blow back from anyone attached to the NFL after the piece ran?
“It took a lot of persistence to get a league response. I first emailed NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy on a Tuesday, 13 days before my deadline, and gave him one week to respond. (I needed a few days to factor in for story revisions after the response.) I called the next day and left a voicemail. I didn’t get a response to the email or call, so I sent McCarthy another email on the ensuing Monday. That email consisted of key reporting details included in the story on how the NFL/claims administrator was treating claims. That email was followed by an immediate phone call, which McCarthy answered.
“We discussed the story while he read the email, and he said he’d do what he could do given legal restraints. McCarthy sent me a statement of several paragraphs the next day, meeting the deadline I had given him. I included the key proponents of that statement in the story.
“I have not received any blow back from the league. I think the reason is because the story fairly presents their side. The interest of fairness is why I sent the followup email. I wanted the NFL to have a chance to respond to the reporting in this story before it was published, not after. That email, I think, was the key to getting a response.”
We’ve had a lot of chatter about how sports reporters and political reporters and others at the highest levels have to “play the game” to get scoops or to avoid being ostracized. Did you ever consider the ramifications of going after a piece like this or worry about how it might impact your day-to-day work with the Packers or the NFL? Did you think, “This might get me into some trouble and it might not be worth it” for your career?
“That thought never crossed my mind during the entire 18 months. I’m not really wired that way, for one. Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do.
“But the biggest reason is because I know I have firm backing from my employer. I’m blessed to work at a newspaper committed to doing journalism at the highest level. So I never had to be concerned about backlash.
“A thought that did occur to me early on was that this story was entirely about the NFL, and not the Packers. This issue went above any team to the league level. So I also didn’t have to worry about any blow back from the Packers, who I work with on a daily basis. Not that it would have changed how I reported the story in any way.”
Were there any key moments in the reporting process where you started to see a bigger piece develop? Anything that made you start to realize how big this was and why the story mattered?
“After I did not get a response from the NFLPA, I spoke to lawyers. I got a referral to one lawyer, who gave me referrals to a handful of other lawyers, and the web started to grow.
“What makes this story special is that it falls on a rare cultural cross section of sports, legal and medicine. That’s a lot of factors to weave into one story. I knew the sports, but I needed to understand all the intricacies of from legal and medical perspectives. I knew nothing about the concussion settlement when I started reporting the story, so that was the first step.
“To become an expert, learn from the experts. It was basically like going to school. Those initial conversations were lengthy, at least an hour. I think my longest phone call was more than three hours. What the attorneys were telling me made it clear there was a big story here.
“As for why the story mattered, it was very simple. People needed help and weren’t getting it. Every now and then, we get the privilege and obligation as journalists to help people who can’t find it anywhere else. It’s what makes journalism a service. Those opportunities make this job quite rewarding.”
What advice do you have for student journalists and journalism students who might want to go after a bigger piece like this? Are there any things you found that were really helpful or things you would caution them against?
“Don’t eat the elephant in one bite. A project like this can feel impossible at the onset. You’ve got to start somewhere. A phone call. Another phone call. Just keep going.
“No story in my career has stressed the value of patience more than this one. Reporting a story 18 months can be very rewarding at the end, but it’s exhausting to reach that point. There were moments I had doubts whether the story would ever be published. I constantly questioned whether it would be worth the time investment. So I think it starts there, at the emotional level.
“In terms of reporting, it almost works the opposite. Cast the widest net possible, and narrow it from there. I wanted to speak to everybody: players, family members, lawyers, physicians. Every conversation ended with the same question: Who else do you know that would be good for me to speak with? That’s a critical question for reporters taking on a project like this. The people you’re speaking with sometimes know better than you who else to talk to.”
Anything else you want to say? Anything I missed?
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the necessity of working with a great editor. The industry has devalued editors over the past decade, but this story more than any in my career emphasized the important role they serve to quality journalism.
“There’s no chance this story would have gotten off the ground without the work of my editors. I was fortunate to work with two superb editors over these 18 months. It started with my sports editor, Robert Zizzo. He helped me believe in the story, keep patience when the reporting took longer than I wanted, and was important to one of the most crucial elements, crafting a narrative through the reporting.
“It moved to the desk of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative editor Sam Roe midway through. With Sam, I rewired the story. The analogy we used was keeping the structure of a house, but removing all the appliances, furniture and floors, and then refurbishing it. A major revision to the story was for it to be told through the perspective of players. Initial versions were too heavily reliant on reporting from lawyers. I think the final copy personalizes the story, helping make a dense topic digestible.”