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Nowinski Discusses Head Injuries

Athlete speaks about the dangers of contact sports

Heights Editor

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 01:02

Terry Long, Andre Waters, John Grimsley. The list goes on—all former NFL players, all committed suicide before the age of 50.

“I’m going to talk to you tonight about the concussion crisis,” Chris Nowinski said in Gasson 100 on Tuesday night. Nowinski, a nationally recognized expert on concussions, co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), as well as the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University (BUCSTE), was hosted by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics to speak about the troubling and largely disregarded statistics behind head injuries in sports.

Nowinski played football at Harvard and later went on to a short-lived professional wrestling career for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Known as “Chris Harvard” among the WWE community, he made a prominent career for himself, even meriting the WWE title of “2002’s Newcomer of the Year”—but that all ended after a performance gone wrong in 2003. After sustaining a severe injury to the face as a result of a gaffed stunt, Nowinski was forced to reevaluate his standing on head injuries. Like most diehard athletes, Nowinski generally shrugged off substantial injuries even when “seeing stars,” “blacking out,” or experiencing extreme disorientation, but long-term effects led him to take initiative toward his own wellbeing.

The wrestler found himself “unable to last in the gym for even five minutes” and experienced unstoppable sleepwalking for over three years—after his first honest consultation with a doctor, he was diagnosed with having undergone multiple untreated concussions.

With new perspective on the long-term effects of sports-related traumatic head injuries, Nowinski launched his investigative career on the previously overlooked truth behind concussions. His research revealed deeply unsettling patterns between NFL legends suffering from unbearable symptoms of depression, dementia, short-term memory loss, abusive behavior, and a lengthy list of other life-threatening manifestations of repeated head injuries. The NFL, however, was reluctant to connect the dots between concussions and their long-term effects—as recently as 2009, the NFL’s research committee on head injuries touted evidence that refuted all claims of a causal relationship between concussions and the symptoms Nowinski and his colleagues found, even denying congressional allegations of such a correlation.

It was soon discovered, though, that the NFL hired researchers who had published statistics based on manipulated data and only studied active players for a period of six years—disregarding the long-term effects of retired players. Their reports concluded that there existed no risk for players immediately being put back in the game or any increased susceptibility to concussions (repeat concussions). These researchers also asserted that concussions posed no long-term dangers for children. Nowinski’s fieldwork held otherwise.

Information gathered through SLI and a network of physicians working with Nowinski showed that concussions inflicted not only physical harm but also an extensive degree of psychological damage.

Mike Webster, considered one of the best centers in NFL history, had reportedly experienced the onset of dementia by his early 40s. Aside from the acute bone and muscle pain that riddled his body, the former star was also mentally ravaged by depression, squandered his money, and was often incapable of finding his way back to the pickup truck he lived in. Upon his death, Webster was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a direct result of repeat concussions suffered during his athletic career.

Nowinski started uncovering numerous suicides of former pro-football players who were later found to have had CTE. Former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson’s suicide note read, “Please see that my brain is donated to the NFL’s brain bank.” A link emerged between concussions and long-term health-deterioration, which led the NFL to change its stance in 2009, and even to become one of the leading forces of research in this field.

Nowinski now heads the movement for studies in CTE and has been featured in multiple ESPN and HBO documentaries for his work. His book, Head Games, details and quantifies concussion-related statistics not only in professional sports, but in youth athletics too, and has been made into a film. He also advocates for enhanced league regulation and a greater focus on the preventative measures that can be taken to minimize head injuries among children. “Most youth leagues have no form of formal training [for coaches] … limited access to health resources in youth leagues also stands out … we miss about 90 percent of concussions.”

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