A League of Fans Special Feature
Chris Nowinski is one of the foremost educators, advocates, and researchers in the field of sports concussions and brain trauma. A former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, Nowinski was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and forced to retire in 2004. He began a quest to better understand his condition and quickly discovered that a lack of awareness about brain trauma among athletes, coaches and medical professionals was threatening the short-and-long-term well-being of athletes of all ages.
Nowinski eventually teamed up with Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the country’s leading researchers in the area of concussions, and co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) with Cantu. SLIis a non-profit organization dedicated to solving the sports concussion crisis. Nowinski also serves as a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at BostonUniversitySchoolof Medicine. In addition, Nowinski is the author of Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis.
Nowinski was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.
Ken Reed: What was the trigger that really made you passionate about getting the word out on concussions after you retired from the WWE?
Chris Nowinski: Well, I found that everything we were doing in sports was wrong when it came to the brain. I discovered we weren’t diagnosing concussions properly; athletes weren’t resting long enough after concussions; we were allowing too much brain trauma that could have been avoided; and there weren’t any return-to-play guidelines in place; to name a few things.
KR: How did the Sports Legacy Institute come about?
CN: My book, Head Games, came out in 2006. While working on that book, I realized that the only way to confirm what was happening with the brain after head trauma was to study the brains of athletes after they had died. So, I began to help researchers find more athletes’ brains to study. I had met Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading researchers in this area, and we decided to form a non-profit structure to work on the concussion issue in sports.
KR: What’s your general philosophy on how we can make sports safer for the brain?
CN: I don’t know if I have a general philosophy, but basically, we need to fully recognize what the brain can handle and structure our sports from that knowledge. Every aspect of each sport should be reconsidered with an eye towards brain trauma.
KR: How can we limit the number of hits athletes – especially young athletes – take to the head in sports?
CN: It’s not easy but there are ways that we can count and limit the number of hits an athlete takes to the head in practice. For example, we can count the number of headers that players take in soccer practices and limit those. In football, we have the technology that shows us the data on the number of hits to the head for a season. Those hits can be significantly cut back if we limit the number of hits to the head during practice.
With the new labor agreement, the NFL has limited full contact practices to once a week during the regular season. The Ivy League now only allows two full contact practices a week. Meanwhile, high school and youth football leagues are still allowing full contact practices four or more times a week!
We’re also learning which football drills are the most dangerous. We can put limits on those specific drills that result in the most hits to the head. With soccer, first we have to determine at what age it’s appropriate to do headers. Once we determine at which age headers are appropriate, we can work on limiting exposure by limiting the number of headers.
KR: Can we change how sports are played in order to protect athletes’ brains without changing the nature of the games?
CN: We’ve always adjusted the rules of our games when new information or ideas come to the forefront. Our sports have never been static. We didn’t used to have the forward pass in football, or the three-point line in the NBA. People have always adjusted to modifications in sports.
KR: How can we speed up the education and awareness process when it comes to brain injuries in sports, especially at the youth level?
CN: We need to annually educate coaches, parents and athletes. Every athlete needs to know that you don’t mess with brain injuries. Almost every athlete knows you don’t mess with neck injuries because you can end up paralyzed. In a similar way, every athlete needs to learn about brain trauma and realize you don’t take chances with brain injuries. We need to start educating young athletes when they’re six years old. We have to get to the point where athletes can recognize the symptoms of concussion in themselves and their teammates.
KR: What about helmets? Do we need more helmets in sports? Better helmets?
CN: I don’t advocate helmets, unless the sport has a skull fracture issue. Adding helmets, in soccer for example, can actually result in more problems.
Repetitive brain trauma is worse than ever today despite the high-tech helmets in football and hockey. And the evidence is growing that repetitive sub-concussive hits cause long-term problems, similar to concussions.
KR: What would you tell parents of athletically-minded children who want their kids to participate in sports but are increasingly nervous about all the findings regarding brain trauma in general and concussions in particular?
CN: Get educated and try to make an informed decision. Nobody should expose kids to repetitive brain trauma without knowledge of what the potential ramifications could be. Also, make sure the youth sports program you’re considering is clearly doing all they can to make the sport as safe as possible.
KR: What should youth sports organizations be doing to protect the brain as much as possible?
CN: While sports provide immense value both to athletes and our society in general, with current practices they are exposing children to unacceptable levels of brain damage. Much of this brain damage, however, is preventable with a few simple steps that we cover in our minimum recommended guidelines for youth sports.
Editor’s Note: Here are SLI’s “Minimum Recommended Guidelines for Youth Sports”
1) Preseason education for coaches, parents and athletes – Preseason concussion and brain trauma education should be required for coaches, parents, and athletes.
2) Youth programs should adopt the CDC Heads Up Concussion Action Plan – If you suspect that a player has a concussion, you should take the following steps:
- Remove athlete from play
- Ensure athlete is evaluated by an appropriate health care professional. Do not try and judge the seriousness of the injury yourself.
- Inform athlete’s parents or guardians about the known or possible concussion and give them the CDC fact sheet on concussion.
- Allow athlete to return to play only with permission from an appropriate health care professional.
3) Utilize CDC Heads Up Stickers on Clipboards – Stickers make for easy access to both a list of common concussive signs and symptoms and an action plan if an athlete potentially experiences a concussion.
4) Prevention Through Neck Strengthening – Studies have shown that neck strength may be an important factor in reducing the forces on the brain resulting from impacts to the head.
5) Prevention Through Overall Brain Trauma Reduction — Coaches should monitor total brain trauma and strive to reduce both the number of hits to the head that players receive and the severity. Repetitive brain trauma suffered in youth sports is believed to lead to some athletes developing the progressive neurodegenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can eventually lead to dementia.CTE may be more correlated to total lifetime brain trauma than concussions.
Sports Forum Podcast
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- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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