Russell Wilson’s devotion to the products he promotes changed Wednesday evening from corny in an annoying way to stupid in a dangerous way. Following the publication of a Rolling Stone article in which he expressed a similar belief, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback tweeted that a bubbly water drink, in which he is an investor, helped him prevent a concussion.
Wilson credited Reliant Recovery Water with saving him from a concussion after Clay Matthews leveled him in the NFC Championship Game last year. Wilson stumbled and clearly exhibited signs of a brain injury, but he never missed a snap and still claims the blow did not concuss him. He said Recovery Water saved him and touted the drink’s “nanobubbles” as the reason. Or, rather, #NanoBubbles.
Wilson’s assertion is not only blatantly foolish. It is reckless and craven, an attempt to profit with a ridiculous claim that could lead to impressionable players misdiagnosing their own concussion.
“My reaction was extreme disappointment,” said Chris Nowinski, the founding executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute. “It’s an irresponsible claim. We need top NFL players to be role model on concussions for all the youth and high school players. What he said is just going to confuse them.”
Athletes have grown expert at hawking products directly to fans through social media. If you follow sports, you are inundated more than ever with athlete endorsements. Wilson plays that game in a more fervent and prolific manner than most. In most cases, it’s cloying but harmless. In this case, he crossed a line.
“It is extremely troubling to me,” said Dr. Robert Stern, a professor of neurology at Boston University. “There’s no research at all anywhere that I know of that suggested in any way that the special water that he is referring to would have any impact on concussions.”
By many, Wilson’s claim will be easily laughed off. It’s not like we should be surprised that the solution to the concussion crisis cannot be found hiding in Don Ho lyrics. But for two groups of people – the desperate and the young – Wilson’s comments were potentially damaging.
Nowinski envisioned a disconcerting possibility. A young player suffers a blow to the head during a game and likely suffers a concussion. He drinks Recovery Water and goes to bed. When he wakes up, the headache is gone – a perfectly normal occurrence for someone who was concussed that would be neither attributable to Recovery Water nor a sign the concussion had healed. The player, thinking he has experienced the same recovery as Wilson, goes back to practice the next day, at great risk of sustaining serious brain injury.
“That’s a real concern,” Nowinski said, “and a real reason people shouldn’t say things like this.”
Wilson’s claim added to the body of so-called experts using celebrities to peddle miracle cures with little proof. Daniel Amen claimed psychiatric breakthroughs, with the endorsement of Joan Baez and pre-controversy Bill Cosby, that many in his field refuted. Bernie Kosar touted the treatment of Dr. Rick Sponaugle, whose work has been widely criticized by experts. Like them, Wilson offered a tease.
“There are a lot of people out there who are really desperately searching for some kind of treatment for what they perceive as untreatable complications of concussion, and also the longer-term problems including Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” Stern said. “That creates this vulnerable population who really wants something, desperately, to help. And statements like his provide false hope and are misleading when it comes to the scientific support behind it.”
“There’s already enough doctors out there providing false hope,” Stern added. “We don’t need a commercial bubbly water company to make false claims.”
On its website, Reliant Recovery Water does not mention concussion prevention among its benefits: “Proven through scientific research, using recovery water will help reduce pain and inflammation from your active lifestyle; accelerate recovery from injury and muscle related stress; decrease fatigue for higher energy during activity; speed muscle recovery after activity; and deliver better hydration and an increased sense of well-being.”
Stern pointed out that the “research” Reliant cites consists of a poster made for presentation at a meeting, describing athletes who felt better after drinking Reliant. The findings have not been published in any science journals, Stern said.
Given the chance, Reliant did not back away from Wilson’s claim. Reliant responded to a phone message regarding Wilson’s comment with a wan, emailed press release that in no way addressed the assertion that Recovery Water can heal concussions:
“Developed as a result of more than a decade of scientific research, Reliant Recovery Water was created to provide a more functional hydration process. Reliant Recovery Water uses a unique electro-kinetic modification process that may help to accelerate your body’s natural recovery. Reliant Recovery Water redefines hydration and, when paired with an active lifestyle, may aid in physical recovery from injury, helping people to feel their best. For more information, including published research, please reference.”
When pressed specifically about Wilson’s comments, a spokeswoman emailed back: “Until yesterday, Reliant Recovery Water was not aware of Russell Wilson’s Rolling Stone interview or statements about the brand. For any direct questions about Russell or his statements please contact his management.”
As writer Stephen Rodrick explains in the Rolling Stone story, Wilson is zealous in his convictions, and he grows convicted of every action he takes. His evangelical belief in himself is what carried him, as a 5-foot-11 quarterback, to the top of the NFL. It’s why he could tell an audience, with a straight face, that God told him he wanted to use him as an example, and that’s why he threw the game-losing interception in the Super Bowl. It’s why he thinks special water can heal damaged brain tissue.
In the story, Wilson’s agent Mark Rodgers cuts off Wilson as he tells Rodrick that Recovery Water made him “fine” the day after the Seahawks beat the Packers. “Well, we’re not saying we have real medical proof,” Rodgers said.
Wilson was undeterred. “I know it works,” Wilson said. “Soon you’re going to be able to order it straight from Amazon.”
Wilson needs to recognize his faith, in this case, does not excuse his ignorance. It’s okay for Russell Wilson to be corny or annoying. It’s not okay for him to give fans, some of whom are high school athletes prone to following the advice of a Super Bowl quarterback, the impression that fizzy water can stop brain injuries.