Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Interview with Chris Nowinski

A topic that will be in the headlines for years to come unfortunately is concussions in sport. In an effort to help raise awareness of this very serious injury, I recently conducted an interview with Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute for the July edition of Main Street. With permission from Jack Burger, Editor and Publisher of Main Street, I have posted the article here. Thanks Jack!!

I encourage everyone to visit Main Street online at to read an amazing community newspaper that I am proud to be part of each month. Watch for my interview with retired NHL player Keith Primeau regarding his involvement with the Sports Legacy Institute in the coming weeks.

Chris Nowinski and the Sports Legacy Institute

In 2002, Harvard University graduate, Chris Nowinski, embarked on a career as a wrestler in the WWE. While performing in a tag-team match, Nowinski suffered one of his many concussions that would eventually change his life and the lives of others. Athletes often play through injuries and it was no different for Nowinski, he continued to wrestle for several weeks before the effects of repeated concussions forced him out of the ring. A brain injury is very different from a sprain or broken bone and playing through the injury can lead to a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In a recent interview, Nowinski, author of Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis and co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), discussed concussion awareness with Main Street.

“A major problem that I recognize from my experience and it continues today is that there is no formal concussion education at any level of sport,” said Nowinski. “Concussions are very different from any other injury. When you sprain a body part, you basically play as long as you are not hurting the team and you are not hurting yourself further. That is usually the mentality we have and if you apply that to concussions, you get yourself into a lot of trouble. Nobody tells you that and so, because we don't know that playing through concussions can hurt you, we do it.”

While the SLI focuses on youth sports, Nowinski is working with professional leagues and their athletes as well. A change of attitude towards a brain injury among players, management and sports fans is essential.

“We are actually working on a document now with a current player in the NFL to try to change that behaviour. We really like to focus on the problem at the youth level but the NFL level is a specific and unique issue in that there is money involved and people are adults and they can make their own decisions. There are a lot of external pressures that do not exist anywhere else. There are certainly ways that you can restructure the way concussions are handled, procedurally and in terms of roster exemptions for injury. There are a lot of outside the box ways you can make things safer and get everyone’s incentives aligned.”

For amateurs and young athletes, the SLI has begun a program of coaching clinics to educate coaches on the serious consequences of concussions. The state of New Hampshire has passed a law making concussion education mandatory for youth coaches and Nowinski would like to see this become standard procedure in the sports world.

“I think some level of education needs to be mandatory in contact sports,” said Nowinski. “The idea that you are going to put a helmet on a seven-year-old kid, where he is definitely going to take shots to the head and probably suffer a concussion and yet not tell him or his coaches how to handle it properly is wrong. The coach is the only adult responsible for the kids or near the kids. To not tell them how to recognize when a kid has a concussion, why they need to send them to a doctor, it really puts the kids at a risk that they really should not be at.”

A common misconception is that Nowinski and the SLI are trying to change the way we play contact sports, which could not be further from the truth.

As Nowinski states, “People sometimes feel threatened that we are trying to get kids not to play or that we are trying to turn them soft. The fact is, that working with what we know, we want them to play more safely.”

Repeated concussions can lead to short-term memory loss, headaches, vertigo, depression, anxiety, paranoia, dementia, and irreparable damage to the brain tissue. In the most tragic cases, it has led to suicide. Unfortunately, a post-mortem analysis of the brain tissue is the only way to confirm CTE. Several former NFL and NHL players, as well as amateur athletes, have agreed to donate their brain tissue after they pass in the hope of furthering the research of the Sports Legacy Institute. As a non-profit organization, the SLI accepts monetary donations, as well as donations of brain tissue. There is a link at their website - for information on making either type of donation.

As an amateur athlete, I have personally suffered through several undiagnosed concussions and have considered a donation myself. It is a difficult issue but it could make a difference in the continuing research of the SLI. The interview conducted with Mr. Nowinski was very in depth and will continue in the next edition of Main Street Week. Have a great sports day everyone. Remember to have fun but play safe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Outstanding. I look forward to the Main Street article.