Many journalists uphold the duties of their profession. They report honestly, accurately and without bias on complicated topics that they have decided to be of sufficient importance to share with the world. These journalists serve important societal functions and offer vital critical perspectives on governments, politicians and corporations.
However, some journalists never come close to reaching these laudable goals. Instead, they write to gather attention and provoke reactions and pay little attention to scientific accuracy. In the past, this was done to boost single-copy newspaper at food stores and gas stations. In the modern era, this is done in order to get as many clicks as possible to their articles so that they can earn more and more impressions from the advertisements displayed on those websites. They ultimately specialize in manipulating the emotions of people and monetizing the ignorance.
A recent article in The Guardian hailed the soccer player Francis Koné as someone who has saved the life of multiple opponents who got injured during soccer games he played in. How did he do this? By grabbing their tongues and preventing them from being swallowed. There is only one small problem: humans cannot actually swallow their own tongue because it is tied to the floor of the mouth by the lingual frenulum. In other words, the story is decidedly misleading.
Who is Francis Koné?
Francis Koné is a soccer player (originally from Ivory Coast) who currently represents Togo. He also plays as a forward in the team 1. FC Slovácko (based in Uherské Hradiště) in the Czech First League. This is the biggest competition in the entire soccer league in the Czech Republic and the team has been close to winning the entire competition several times.
What did the Guardian article claim?
An article that appeared in football (soccer) section of The Guardian on March 6 made the astonishing claim that Koné had saved the life of four other soccer players. Although the headline might not be chosen by the journalist, it screams “Francis Koné, the footballer who has now saved the lives of four opponents”.
Interesting! How do soccer players save the life of their opponents? Did Koné donate organs to them? Protected them against a batshit fan attacking them? Not quite. Here is how he describes his actions on the Bohemians 1905 goalie Martin Berkovec:
Koné starts by putting a “one foot across his chest”? This is an incredibly bad idea because it can make it more difficult for the person to breathe. There are known fatalities due to this in relation to e.g. police trying to arrest someone who is fighting back. Koné then forced the jaw open and put his fingers into it. This can hurt the teeth and Koné acknowledges that he himself sustained injuries from the activity. It is also peculiar that Koné says that the entire thing was over in mere seconds, much to fast for someone to suffocate to death in that kind of scenario. The entire event is captured on a 58 second video that appears at the top of the Guardian article. Turns out that it is not so much a foot, but a leg.
So is Koné a hero for “saving four of his opponents?
Fact-check: people cannot actually swallow their own tongue
Unfortunately for Francis Koné, it is actually not possible for humans to swallow their own tongue. Sticking your hand into the mouth of someone who has been injured (or having a seizure) can have harmful effects for both participants, from bites to the hand and damages to the teeth and mouth.
The underside of the tongue is connected to the floor of the mouth via a connection called lingual frenulum. It can be easily seen in a mirror if a person open their mouth and put the tip of the tongue at the back of their front teeth. This prevents the tongue from being swallowed under all circumstances. Contrary to popular belief, the tongue does not passively move around inside the mouth randomly, but tied down in a way that somewhat limits movement.
If someone is having a seizure or has gotten injured, sticking your hand into their mouth will most likely result in them biting you. You can also damage their teeth and their gums. Experts that teach first aid explicitly states that it is just a persistent myth and that you should not put anything (object or hand) into the mouth of people during those circumstances. Full stop.
Some people might protest that the tongue can still “fall back” and perhaps obstruct the airways if a person is unconscious. However, basic first aid involves gently tilting a person’s head back to free the airways in case they are obstructed. This does not in any way justify the claim that people can swallow their own tongue or that you should stick something in their mouths. It is just an unscientific myth, like the false claim that people only use 10% of their brains. Furthermore, Koné explicitly states that this was not something he believed as he indicates that he knows that soccer players are turned on their side if they get injured “to make sure the airways are clear”.
A previous article in Washington Post written by Cindy Boren on February 27 covers the same event, but merely reports that Koné helped to turn the goalie to the side to clear the airways. This is not true, because the video at the Guardian article (and even the photograph in the Washington Post article) clearly shows that it is number 3 (Petr Buchta) from the opposing Bohemians 1905 that turns the goalie.
A brief article (same date as the Washington Post article) in Sports Illustrated also reports the fake notion that Koné saved a life by stopping t he goalkeeper “from swallowing his tongue, allowing him to breathe freely”. NBC Sports also reports it, both of which indicate that the story originally came from Associated Press.
The intellectual responsibility of journalists (also applies to soccer correspondents!)
The Guardian article was written by Dominic Fifield. According to his brief Guardian profile, he is “the Guardian’s London football correspondent”. So right from the start, it is clear that Fifield is not a science or medicine journalist. His Twitter profile offers the additional detail that he writes about similar topics for the Observer. Thus, perhaps it is not entirely unsurprising that errors on science and medicine could slip into his articles unnoticed. It is unknown to which degree he genuinely believes that people could swallow their tongue, was hoodwinked by the soccer player or just wanted to write a thrilling hit piece on life and death. Presumably, this is a subject matter that rarely comes across the desk of a journalist focused on London soccer. Hopefully, clarification will be forthcoming from Fifield.
In the end, journalists have an intellectual responsibility to not mislead their readers and report accurately on the subjects they cover. Fifield failed this basic requirement and so did the Guardian newspaper. They claim to stand up for facts and honest reporting, but perhaps this is only done from time to time and not a consistent devotion. What can Fifield and the Guardian do now? It would be appropriate to print a correction (both in the online version and the newspaper edition) and perhaps a Guardian journalist more knowledgeable about science and health could write a detailed article debunking the myth that humans can swallow their own tongue. That would make their readers more informed.
Francis Koné did not save the goalie Martin Berkovec from dying by preventing him from swallowing his tongue. This is because it is impossible to swallow your own tongue due to it being attached the the floor of the mouth with a frenulum (called lingual frenulum). The idea that people can risk swallowing their own tongue and suffocating to death is a myth akin to thinking that humans only use 10% of their brains.
Koné was not an important aid in ensuring that the goalie had free airways. From the video and photographs, this belongs to Bohemians 1905 player Petr Buchta (#3), who moved the goalie on his side. All Koné did was put a leg across the goalies chest and force his mouth open and grabbed his tongue. Both actions carry some risk of injury and are not reasonable methods to save the life of anyone.