Tom Brady’s Dangerous Alt-Science Blitz
The New England Patriots’ quarterback’s book, Facebook Watch documentary, and appearance at the Super Bowl legitimize a dangerous brand of alt-science.
“What are you willing to do and what are you willing to give up to be the best you can be?” are Tom Brady’s first words in the Facebook Watch documentary, Tom vs. Time. The premise of the series is neatly summarized in the title, and put on repeat throughout the premiere of the show: Brady is 40 years old, at an age when he should be retired, yet somehow brought his team back from what seemed like imminent loss in 2017’s stunning Super Bowl win against the Atlanta Falcons. On Sunday, Brady’s New England Patriots will take on the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brady, the documentary suggests, is superhuman and on a race against time. And Brady’s on a mission to show his secrets, first with last September’s release of The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance and now with the companion series of episodes profiling Brady’s life, directed by Gotham Chopra.
It might not be surprising, then, that the first episode of Tom vs. Time, “The Physical Game,” features a scene in which Brady goes to his business partner and longtime trainer Alex Guerrero for a pounding, seemingly painful massage he terms “pliability training,” after he noticed that “bumps and bruises” he’d gotten from football “were really starting to take a toll.” The segment shows Guerrero examining Brady’s heel, rubbing it and commenting, “This is better,” a vague note that suggests that something about pliability training has somehow improved Brady’s heel.
Even Brady notes skepticism when he recalled initially meeting Guerrero. “I was like, ‘Yeah, what can he do? What can he do that’s been different than what everyone else has done for me, which is just ice your shoulders and take some rest?’” Brady gazes into the camera and swallows. “Boy did I learn a lot.”
The next shot illustrates pliability training, what appears to be a really intense Thai massage, as Guerrero (credited as Brady’s “body coach”) swiftly and stringently rubs Brady’s legs. He pounds Brady’s back so hard that the quarterback’s body bounces up and down, Brady’s face crunched in discomfort. He pokes and prods, pushes and pinches Brady all over his body. “Prior to the season starting, we really try to get his brain to understand that there’s going to be impact, then prepare his body for the impact, to almost feel as if it’s normal behavior for him.”
What Tom vs. Time fails to mention: Guerrero has been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for “making unsubstantiated health claims,” like promoting a supplement purported to protect athletes from concussions. (The FTC decided not to pursue a full-fledged investigation in exchange for Guerrero refunding customers money and closing shop.)
Speaking of concussions, it’s troubling that the series makes no mention of them. Brady doesn’t address the effects of head impact that a football player experiences, which—as has been widely reported—can lead to concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Pliability training is, by definition, aimed at massaging an athlete’s muscles, which is well and good, but the vast majority of scientific and medical criticism about football has been around head impact and brain injuries, which are more complex and devastating than muscle tears. But Brady is silent on the fact that his colleagues have suffered some of the most violent traumatic brain injuries a human body can endure, resulting in mental and physical trauma that may have led to death and suicide.
As for pliability training itself, it’s a fuzzy concept. Brady explains it as such: “I see pliability as lengthening and softening muscles to get them back into balance. Over the years, so many muscle contractions or through all the workouts that we do, we shorten our muscles. So if you can get them to lengthen, then when you contract, they can fully contract and relax.” Soft muscles, Brady contends, allow a player to get slammed by another body repeatedly; denser, tougher muscles tear and don’t bounce back.
On paper, this explanation of how muscles work makes very little sense and is oversimplified. Slow-twitch muscles carry oxygen and are able to sustain energy and function before feeling tired; fast-twitch muscles are key for sprinting and short bursts of strength and speed. The development and usage of these muscles can be sports-specific, so that in football, which is a game that requires both running for a distance and short bursts of speed, these muscles can be individualized for each role. Football is a physiologically intensive sport; for a quarterback like Brady, though, action is often limited to throwing and calling plays, with occasional running of the ball. That means that in both arms and legs, Brady is mostly using short-twitch muscles. Now, according to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute’s analysis of the physiological demands of football, most muscle damage is enzymatic and “highly conditioned athletes [are] able to withstand the stress of 10 days of two-a-day practice sessions.” In fact, the report says, elite players often have muscles “desensitized” to repeated blows.
The “lengthening” and “softening” of muscles to allow them to contract and relax? A massage certainly has beneficial effects for how a body recovers after a stressful event. A stretch feels amazing, and getting a professional to knead sore, tired muscles can be crucial for recovery after any extremely physical event. But Brady’s insistence that muscles experience ultimate performance when they are “lengthened” and “softened” so that they can fully contract has next to no scientific backup—there are literally zero studies on muscle pliability. As an expert in muscle physiology told The New York Times: “It’s balderdash.”
And that’s the crux of the problem with Tom Brady’s TB12 method to promote health and wellness: It seems to suggest there is something happening that is good for you, something science doesn’t even know or understand.
This line of thinking is always dangerous (see: anti-vaxxers, homeopaths), and it’s also dangerous for Brady to peddle his alternative therapies—without any scientific research to back them up—as something that should be believed as fact.
It doesn’t help that the Tom vs. Time has the sheen of earnestness. Filmed in the type of inspirational montage-style that will become ubiquitous in February with the Olympics, the documentary homes in on Brady. We see shots of him peeling a banana (sans chef) before popping it in a blender and swirling the contents into a purple smoothie. We see him at the gym, sweating through resistance exercises. We see him at home, taking his rings out of a locker and chuckling, “I need to shine these.”
Brady’s everyman routine is grating, but is instrumental in setting the stage for his second coming, a career that could propel him into the “time” part of his series: as a health and wellness guru. After all, what’s better than a social media-only documentary in promoting Brady as a health expert? Chopra has seemingly obtained countless clips of commentators and coaches and even Brady himself robotically repeating ad nauseum the fact that Brady is 40 and far older than most athletes. It’s impossible to ignore Brady’s attempt to be the male Goop, a sort of Gwyneth Paltrow for men.
And while that might seem like an odd place to be for an all-American icon like Brady, it’s a savvy move. Brady is heralded by a significant portion of this country as an American hero, and in a land where football is second to church in godliness on autumn Sundays, Brady’s is a presence that marks him as a prime individual for being able to kickstart a health and wellness revolution among men.
That’s huge, given the sorry statistics that surround men’s health in this country: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.8 percent of men in America are in poor health; nearly half of American men don’t meet federal guidance on physical activity; 17.8 percent of men smoke cigarettes; 34.5 percent were obese; mortality was overwhelmingly higher than those of their female counterparts, particularly due to heart disease, cancer, and accidents—the first of which can be preventable with diet and exercise. For whatever reason, men don’t take care of their health as much as they should.
But Brady, the quintessential American man, does, and how. Indeed, the series highlights very few of Brady’s health practices that have been widely covered, analyzed, and often scorned: His refusal to eat nightshade vegetables to avoid inflammation, his misguided logic that drinking water will prevent sunburn.
But could it be that Brady is actually doing good? He’s promoting health and wellness for a segment of the population that probably won’t go see a doctor or eat some greens without someone they look up to promoting that lifestyle. Brady is, after all, just a normal, average American: a 9-to-5 man with a family, a job he works hard at, hitting the gym and hanging with his buddies (never mind that he’s got a personal chef, an exercise routine that involves specialists, and money—lots of it).
In fact, that’s a huge part of the problem in Brady’s proselytizing about health and wellness: It requires a certain income and class. The nutrition manual alone that comes with Brady’s recent book rings in at a hefty $200. Brady’s diet is primarily vegan and local, which is arguably expensive for an average American man. He dumps electrolytes into everything he drinks along with specially selected, top-of-the-line supplements. His vegetables are most often raw and organic. The vegetables he has are limited to those that are “alkalizing.” It’s not feasible for a middle- or lower-income American to go against time in the way Tom Brady does.
To be fair, Brady’s diet falls into the nutritionally lauded Michael Pollan philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But it doesn’t erase the fact that it takes money to follow the TB12 Method, it takes money to be able to eat well in America, and it takes money to be able to have vitamins and minerals splunked into every single drink you drink—money that many Americans just can’t afford to spend on designer meals.
What’s even sadder, and more terrifying, about the series is the fact that Sunday’s Super Bowl offers Brady essentially free advertising for his “method.” Regardless of if the Patriots win or lose, Brady will have won more exposure. Never mind that his physique and health have been honed after years of training, genetics, and professional investment—he’s brought his scientific flim-flam to the biggest stage American television affords. And by doing so, by showcasing himself as proof of a wellness initiative founded on body coaches and questionable advice like not eating tomatoes and strawberries or shrugging off sunscreen off as unnecessary, Brady is able to establish legitimacy.
Brady’s TB12 method is reflective of a wider debate in American culture about the perception of medicine and science and the rising distrust of those fields in favor of alternative theories that often don’t have any basis in fact. Anti-vaxxers who want to protect their children from autism, women sticking jade eggs up their steamed vaginas in hopes to improve their sexual health and the burgeoning (vastly unregulated) wellness industry—people are so afraid and distrustful of science that they are willing to seek out snake oil in a desperate effort to feel better about themselves and their health. While Brady’s TB12 method certainly has some harmless aspects to it—the core of what he preaches is to eat well and to work out regularly—that he pits himself against time and offers some sort of miracle solution to aging if you just sign up makes for a worrisome precedent.
“I could be—I should be perfect,” Brady says in a closing scene of the first episode, pulling into practice with an audio array of commentators wondering (for the umpteenth time) if Brady can continue to perform in his forties. What Brady has achieved as a 40-year-old athlete is astounding. It’s remarkable that he’s able to run, throw, tackle, and be tackled at the highest, arguably most brutal intensities, emerging time and again victorious. He’s in peak health and capable of doing far more physically than the vast majority of his peers.
But while Brady might want to attribute this to his TB12 system, what he's promoting has never been evaluated by factual, evidence-based science. And while it's important to question the status quo, to test what we believe is true, the pseudoscience Brady is peddling has the power to affect people who aren’t in a position to rigorously verify his claims.
“You’ve got to play harder, tougher, play for everything!” Brady yells at his team in the lows of the Super Bowl last year. Modern-day Brady voices over: “Being mentally tough is putting all that bullshit aside... all the noise, all the hype, and just focusing on what you’ve got to do.”
The problem is, much of what Brady is promoting seems to be noise and hype itself.