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Brain Injuries Haunt Football Players Years Later
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Part of the appeal of pro football has always been bone-jarring hits delivered
on quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. But as four teams battle Sunday
for a trip to the Super Bowl, there will almost certainly be fewer head shots
than in past years.
That's because the league has finally made and enforced rule changes aimed at
reducing head trauma. Players are now fined tens of thousands of dollars for
leading with their helmets in tackles, and teams are banned from sending
players with concussion symptoms back into games or practice.
One of the agents of those changes is our guest, Christopher Nowinski. When he
was a defensive lineman at Harvard, like others, he thought players who
complained about head injuries were soft. But after suffering further
concussions as a pro wrestler, he became an advocate for safer competition.
In 2006, he wrote the book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis," and he
co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit focused on concussions in
sports. Part of Nowinski's work has involved convincing families of deceased
former players to give him the athletes' brains so they could be studied for
evidence of head trauma.
Nowinski says there's been progress in protecting athletes, but as you'll hear,
he thinks far more can be done, especially in youth football. I spoke to
Christopher Nowinski yesterday.
Well, Christopher Nowinski, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about your own
experience first. You played football at Harvard. You were an all-Ivy League
Mr. CHRISTOPHER NOWINSKI (Author, "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis"):
Mr. NOWINSKI: That's correct.
DAVIES: Do you know if you suffered concussions playing in college?
Mr. NOWINSKI: I believe I suffered two very minor ones, and they were not
diagnosed at the time because, of course, I never said anything to anybody. But
the one I remember most vividly was, it was actually an inter-squad scrimmage
before the season my junior year. And I was in the back wall on the kick return
team, and we had some bad kickers back in that day, and unfortunately, they
kicked the ball to me, and I was never allowed to touch it when I played
football as a lineman.
So I didn't know what to do except for run forward and put my head down. And I
went helmet-to-helmet against one of our most vicious tacklers and didn't
remember falling down.
And I remember when the sky, when I opened my eyes, the sky had gone from blue
to orange, and that was a significant difference, I think, for me. But of
course, I just kept on playing through it and then pieced together what exactly
happened when I watched the film the next day and saw that we both - found out
we both got knocked silly and just kind of fell sideways, and it wasn't nearly
as cool of a collision as I thought.
DAVIES: Wow. Was anybody talking about, you know, head injuries and concussions
Mr. NOWINSKI: Not in any serious way. You know, we'd heard - I started college
in '96. And '94 was when Troy Aikman and Steve Young had those concussion
issues, and that was kind of an early blip on this issue. But there was never
really a context as to what, you know, what mattered about concussions and why
it was a big deal that troy Aikman suffered, you know, 10 concussions.
And so, I remember thinking that the teammates that I knew that got
concussions, I was one of those guys who thought they were soft and that there
was something wrong with them.
DAVIES: So you get out of Harvard and then end up with a pro wrestling career
at World Wrestling Entertainment. Tell us a little about your persona as a
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NOWINSKI: I got to have a lot of fun by being a snobby Ivy League graduate.
I happened to - pre-WWE, I was on a reality television show called "Tough
Enough," and there were two Chris's on the show, and so that was back in the
day they didn't use last names, and so they started calling me Chris Harvard.
And once I was called Chris Harvard, I was immediately going to be a bad guy.
And so I would travel the world, insulting the fans and insulting my opponents,
and, you know, say things like, when we went to Iowa State University, and I
said: You know, Harvard and Iowa State have a lot in common. You know, Harvard
has lots of Rhodes scholars, and Iowa State has lots of dirt roads.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NOWINSKI: And, you know, I was...
DAVIES: It went over big, I gather.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Oh, huge.
DAVIES: You know, we've got a little piece of sound from your days back in the
ring, and I thought we'd listen. I don't know where this is, but this is you
with a microphone talking to the crowd in the center of the ring and doing your
act. And we should say that you come out, and you wear red shorts with a
Harvard H across your rear end, right?
Mr. NOWINSKI: That's correct.
DAVIES: And so in this clip, we'll hear you talking to the audience, and then
we've got some TV announcers sort of chirping in and reacting to you. Let's
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. NOWINSKI: (As Chris Harvard) Ever since I made my debut in the WWE, I've
been perplexed as to why you people seem to hate me just because I'm a Harvard
Unidentified Announcer #1: Right. You ever heard that word before, Jim?
Unidentified Announcer #2: Perplexed? (Unintelligible).
Mr. NOWINSKI: (As Chris Harvard) You people should be grateful to have someone
of my intelligence in your presence.
Unidentified Announcer #1: (Unintelligible) Harvard. It's an honor.
Mr. NOWINSKI: (As Chris Harvard) But I understand why you people can't relate
to a guy like me, because after all, I am a Harvard graduate.
Unidentified Announcer #1: Right.
Unidentified Announcer #2: We understand that.
DAVIES: Well, that seems like more fun than graduate school.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NOWINSKI: Those were the days.
DAVIES: And, of course, you were the foil. You were the guy that folks loved to
hate because you were this Ivy League snob. But you did get in the ring, and
you mixed it up. What kind of head shots did you take?
Mr. NOWINSKI: You know, I took quite a few. Of course, wrestling is meant to
be, you know, predetermined, and you're not supposed to injure your opponent.
But the reality is that the moves are so fast, and most of the matches are
improvised. There's a very small margin for error.
And so I got four concussions while I was wrestling, and a few of them were
from kicks to the head, you know, just the fact that I'm running full-speed
across the ring, and one of them, Bubba Ray Dudley, is giving me a, you know,
kicking me in the head with a straight leg.
And were just six inches closer than we thought, and he was trying to make it
look good, and so he just knocked me silly.
Another time, somebody was giving me a move called an enziguri, where they
kicked me in the back of the head. And the sound you usually hear is the person
slapping their hip while they do it, but in this one, my friend, Simon Dean,
later told me he thought he broke his foot.
So, you know, I got unlucky a number of nights, and it was rough.
DAVIES: And what symptoms did you experience and do you still experience?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Well, at the time he kicked me, I remember we were in the
Hartford Civic Center, and he hit my back, and I remember looking up at the
ceiling of the arena and realizing that I just had no idea where I was, and I
had no idea what we were doing out there.
I couldn't remember what happened before, I couldn't remember what was supposed
to happen next. And it was a very scary feeling to be out in front of, you
know, 5,000 fans with - it was a tag-team match, three guys moving around you
at full speed and just being completely - I felt like I was just dropped in on
So we ended up finishing the match. They just would tell me what to do, move
for move, because I had the memory or a goldfish. And when I got backstage, I
just remember my head just pounding and pounding and pounding.
And the athletic trainer had come out to see - you know, he could tell
something was wrong. But the first thing I said was, you know: I'm fine. Leave
me alone. And I just, I actually went and disappeared and hid in the bowels of
the arena, laying on the floor to try to cool of my head.
And as time went on, I ended up essentially - I didn't know any better that
you're supposed to rest a concussion after you get it. So I ended up wrestling
or working out every day for five weeks and made the symptoms worse and brought
on new ones.
I developed short-term memory problems. It started with not being able to
remember the matches as I was going out there and actually planning a couple
matches at the end with Plan B, saying: If I blank out out there, let's do X,
And then what really, you know, made me stop was the fact that I - we did a
show. We went from Green Bay to Indianapolis. I'm driving from Indianapolis to
our show that night in Terre Haute. Apparently, I'm going in and out of
normalcy and consciousness or something, where my driving partner, unbeknownst
to me though he's sitting next to me, called ahead to the managers of that
show, saying don't let Chris wrestle, there's something wrong with him.
So I show up, and they say we're giving you the night off. So I don't wrestle.
I go back to Indianapolis to get ready for the next show, and I go to bed. And
my girlfriend happened to be on the road with me at the time, and I woke up,
apparently about an hour after I went to bed, on the floor of the hotel room
surrounded by a broken nightstand and a broken lamp.
My girlfriend told me that I had started acting out my dream, and so I stood up
on the bed at one point. She couldn't wake me up. She couldn't pull me down.
And in my dream, I guess I thought I saw something falling, and I jumped for it
and just went head-first into the wall and through the nightstand, and
apparently, even hitting the ground didn't wake me up. It took about 30
And that's really what scared me straight and said: Jeez, I think there's
something wrong with my brain, and I should get checked out. And I never
DAVIES: So tell us about this becoming not just a personal issue but, well, a
crusade for you.
Mr. NOWINSKI: My eyes were opened when I was traveling from doctor to doctor to
try to really understand what was going on inside my head. And nobody could
help me understand, you know, why suddenly, you know, one kick to the head is
causing all these problems.
Finally, doctor number eight, was a gentleman named Dr. Robert Cantu, who
became my co-founder of SLI and became my mentor. But at the time, he was my
concussion doctor, a neurosurgeon.
And when I went into his office, he said: How many concussions have you had?
And I said: Well, I've had zero. And that's what I told the other seven
doctors. I'd never been diagnosed with a concussion.
And he said: Okay, well, I appreciate that. But how many times have you been
hit in the head, and you've seen stars or got double-vision or felt nauseous or
got confused, dizzy. And I was, like, well, doc, those happen all the time.
That's just a ding.
And he was, like, well, that's actually, they're all concussions, whether or
not you're knocked out, and maybe you've had too many. And that's how I kind of
pieced together my concussion history of six in the previous five years.
And then, you know, he started just sharing all this other information, you
know, talking about - you know, I couldn't believe: A, I didn't know what a
concussion was; and B, he told me had I rested the concussion and not fought
through those five weeks that I would've really probably been fine - that a
concussion itself is not necessarily a huge problem. But when you return to
play too soon and keep stressing an injured brain, that's really the problem.
And so I realized that I'd really thrown my career away and a few years of my
life, out of just, you know, plain old ignorance.
And then on my own, I happened to have a life prior to wrestling as a life
sciences consultant for a company called Trinity partners outside of Boston.
And I decided to read every study ever published on traumatic brain injury and
concussion and what the consequences are.
And it helped me realize that what people really didn't appreciate in the
medical world, was how many concussions were actually happening. There a ton of
studies out there that talked about the fact that five percent of football
players or hockey players or soccer players each year were diagnosed with a
But there were a small group of studies that actually asked the players, you
know, because you don't tell an athletic trainer when you have a concussion.
Because: A, you don't want to come out; and B, you don't really even know you
have the injury.
The studies that asked the players directly, it wasn't five percent who had
concussions, it was 50 percent each year. So one out of every two players on a
football field got dinged each year, and if that was truly the case, then we
did not have a handle on the situation at all.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Christopher Nowinski. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song, "Night Clubbing")
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Christopher Nowinski. He was a
college football player and former pro wrestler who's been an activist to
reduce head injuries in football and other sports. He's also the author of the
book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis."
In 2006, you wrote the book "Head Games," and I'd like you to tell us the story
of Andre Waters and your involvement with him.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Right, so I put all that information into "Head Games," and then
a month after the book came out, I read about Andre Waters committing suicide.
He was a strong safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and a guy I grew up watching
in great battles with the Chicago Bears.
So in the book, in Chapter four, I profiled the medical examiner, named Bennet
Omalu, who had studied the brains of two Pittsburgh Steelers who had died in
Allegheny County, where he worked, and decided to take a look inside their
brains to see if the symptoms that they had shown throughout their lives, and
they both struggled mightily in their 40s before dying young, may have been
correlated to the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as
dementia pugilistica, punch-drunk disease.
Apparently, nobody had ever looked for this disease in a former football
player. Even thought it was widely known in boxing, nobody ever pieced together
that football players might be at risk, as well.
And, you know, Mike Webster really struggled, was homeless and suffered from
DAVIES: He was the center for the Chicago Bears, right?
Mr. NOWINSKI: He was the center for the Pittsburg Steelers.
DAVIES: The Steelers, okay.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Yeah, he was a Hall of Famer, probably the best center to ever
play the game. And then Terry Long was another offensive lineman for the
Steelers who had committed suicide and had shown very bizarre behaviors in the
last few years of his life, including, you know, he burned down his chicken
processing plant for the insurance money, you know, just prior.
So because Long committed suicide at about the same age, I thought, you know, I
bet you Andre Waters, because he was known as Dirty Waters for being a big
hitter with his head, had a lot of concussions, and I wonder if the concussions
led to the disease, and the disease contributed to the suicide.
And so I Googled Andre Waters' concussion history and found that he was quoted
in 1994, saying that he stopped counting his concussions at 15, and he would
just grab smelling salts and keep playing.
So I knew that he was - if anyone was at high risk for CTE, it was Andre. And
so I decided to call his family and ask if they would let Dr. Omalu study
DAVIES: And this is sort of a remarkable part of the story. You got a look at
his brain. You called and asked, and where was his brain?
Mr. NOWINSKI: His brain was with the medical examiner. The medical examiner, in
cases where people die in unusual circumstances, they retain tissue and blood
and some other things. And so he'd retained five parts of Andre's brain.
And so - and I actually asked the medical examiner first if he was doing the
studies. I kind of naively assumed that the medical examiner would have some
interest as to the cause of the suicide. And, you know, then I remember the
medical examiner telling: Yes, I know the cause of the suicide. He shot him -
the cause of death, he shot himself in the head.
And so he wasn't interested in seeing the underlying issues. And so he was one
who actually told me that if I had the family's permission, that he couldn't
stop me from having the studies done.
And so, you know, I tracked down his family, and I laid it out to them. I said,
you know, I think the brain trauma might have contributed. We can find out, and
the findings will go a long way towards making this game safer for the next
DAVIES: And so it was Dr. Omalu, you said, when he examined Andre Waters'
brain, what did he discover?
Mr. NOWINSKI: He discovered that Andre Waters was the third of three former NFL
players who all died by the age of 50 who had CTE. And, you know, considering
the fact that prior to this, when people though, you know, what are the odds of
someone getting CTE, they really talked in terms of one in a million. To go
three for three in this very select club was shocking. And it did not bode well
for people who played a lot of football.
DAVIES: So a movement got underway. I mean, you and some others formed this
group, the Sports Legacy Institute, and started raising this issue both with
the media and with the league. How did the rest of football react?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Football did not react well at the beginning, unfortunately. You
know, the football community, whether you're talking NFL, college, youth, they
saw this as a threat to the game and as an unnecessary nuisance. I mean, people
just did not want to have this conversation.
I mean, not just belittling it in the media and saying this isn't, you know,
this isn't a real thing, it's just anecdotal evidence, it's, you know, people
practicing bad science. I mean, those things were all said. But also just
people were annoyed.
I remember I had a good friend, who his good friend was a coach in the NFL who
told - I said, you know, I'd like to speak with you. I'd like to share this
information. And the message was passed with me to stop messing around with the
game. So it kind of fell on deaf ears there for a while.
DAVIES: And I think one of the things that really got people's attention were
some really heartbreaking stories about players who hadn't died but who'd
really lost a lot of memory and cognitive function. Do you want to talk about
one of those folks and the impact they had?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Sure. Well, the person who really, you know, became a face for
this was a former New England Patriots middle linebacker Ted Johnson. Ted had
been introduced to me actually in '06, before, you know, well before Andre
Waters, by a mutual friend who said, you know, Ted retired from concussions at
the end of the '04 season and had since gone on a pretty strong downward
spiral, to the point where he was abusing amphetamines, he was, you know, his
marriage was falling apart.
At times, he wasn't leaving his house for days, no one could ever get a hold of
him. I mean, it was really a bad place. And he said: Can you help Ted out?
And so I went out to Ted's house, and I sat down with him, and I said, you
know, I said: Talk to me. What's going on? And he told me his symptoms. And I
said, you know, I had the same thing. And he said: What's it called? I'm like,
And he was, like, I've never heard that phrase before. And apparently, Ted had
no understanding that the concussions he suffered could be contributing to the
problems he had that day, and Ted had a very public problem.
He'd gotten a concussion in a Patriots game, and, you know, Bill Belichick put
him back in practice, in live practice, two days later against doctor's orders.
DAVIES: That was the head coach, yeah.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Yeah, yeah, head coach of the Patriots, put Ted back in, and Ted
got another concussion two days after the first, and he said he's never been
the same guy since.
And so, you know, Ted actually had agreed to write the introduction to my book
because I figured that would help people take it seriously. And he actually
wrote it, and it was all ready to go to the printer, and then he - his family
requested that he withdraw it because he didn't want to be seen, they didn't
want him seen as someone with brain damage because that would hurt his ability
to make a living the rest of his life.
So he pulled out. We didn't talk for a little while, and then when Andre, you
know, committed suicide, and then the story came out by Alan Schwarz on the
front page of the New York Times, I actually brought the Times over to Ted's
apartment, before we went out to dinner. And I said: Ted, you know, this
happened because guys don't know the name for what they're feeling. And if you
came forward, you could make a huge difference.
And, you know, he accepted that challenge, and he went public with his story,
and things were never the same.
DAVIES: Christopher Nowinski is president of the Sports Legacy Institute, a
nonprofit working to fight brain trauma in athletes. He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
As we approach the end of the NFL playoffs, we're talking about head trauma in
sports with Christopher Nowinski, a former college football player and one-time
pro wrestler who has become an advocate for safer competition.
He's the author of the book âHead Games: Football's Concussion Crisis,â and he
co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit focused on concussions in
sports. He's helped get scientists access to the brains of many deceased NFL
players, where they discovered many suffered from a form brain damage found
among aging boxers called CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Youâve talked about some really tragic cases where former players who
apparently had CTE, this, you know, this chronic traumatic injury, kill
themselves. What are the symptoms before it reaches that point, someone who
gets advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy? What do they experience?
Mr. NOWINSKI: The symptoms you see at the beginning of chronic traumatic
encephalopathy are, it starts a lot with short-term memory problems and then
overall memory problems. It starts a lot with impulse control issues. And so
you just you don't have control of your behavior, things you say, things you
do, which leads to behavioral problems. And then you combine mood disorders
like depression and so, and all that often leads to personality change. And so
you're really focused on memory, cognition, emotion and mood, all of those
things will change dramatically.
And what that becomes is that players who have had chronic traumatic
encephalopathy, many of them have committed suicide. Many of them have
developed drug and alcohol abuse issues. You know, a lot of them were actually
self-medicating through headaches, didn't have any impulse control issues so
would get addicted to things. You have very bizarre behaviors.
Justin Strzelczyk was hearing voices before and giving away money on the
streets and became hyper religious before leading the police on a 40 mile chase
where he went through the windshield and died. You know, and I think the worst
example would be Chris Benoit - not an NFL player, but Chris Benoit was my
colleague with World Wrestling Entertainment - who in 2007, after being one of
the most respected guys in WWE, decided to wake up one day and kill his wife,
kill his seven-year-old son and hang himself. And his brain was very progressed
with CTE. And so, you know, it's really an ugly disease.
DAVIES: Well, as you and others raise the issue of head injuries in football,
it sort of came to a boil in 2009. And for a long time the National Football
League didn't really acknowledge that there was scientific evidence that
repeated concussions was having impacts on their players. But they turned
around and they began to make some changes. Let's talk about them. One of them
had to do with keeping players off the field who've had a concussion. What did
Mr. NOWINSKI: Yeah. In November-December of 2009, after a pretty ugly
congressional hearing for them, the NFL saw the light and decided to make some
pretty dramatic changes to their policies on how they treated head injuries.
And one of them was that, you know, athletes were no longer allowed to return
back to game when they were symptomatic. You know, symptomatic from a
concussion. Prior to this, you know, a famous example is 2005, when Wayne
Chrebet, a New York Jets wide receiver, was knocked unconscious on the field
for a minute. And the Jets team doctor happened to be the head of the NFLâs
concussion committee and thought it was a good idea to let Wayne go back into
the game 10 minutes later. And, of course, Wayne retired from the game from
post-concussion syndrome at the end of the season. But no one ever pieced those
two things together. And so, that practice was now going to be stopped and to
the benefit of a lot of players.
DAVIES: And in your impression as you watch the game, is it being enforced? Are
they keeping guys out of the game when they should?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Well, they're getting better at it. I mean I think at the end of
the season I think we saw it happening very, very consistently. There were some
striking examples at the beginning of the season that the policy wasn't exactly
working. I think the best example being a Philadelphia's Eagles game early in
the year where Kevin Kolb first got a concussion. And when he went to the
sideline to be evaluated, Stewart Bradley got another one for the Eagles and
actually fell over trying to get to the sideline. And clearly, I mean to
anybody, he clearly had a concussion. But apparently no one from the Eagles
medical staff was watching the game because they're were all with Kolb and
didn't see it. And no one on the coaching staff or the players thought they
should alert them to and so Stewart Bradley found himself back in the game four
minutes after falling over after a hit to the head. And it was just horrifying
and shocking, and everybody in the entire world watching the game knew he was
concussed and shouldn't be in there but the Eagles didn't handle it.
And so, you know, those, became - what was great about it, it became a media
event. And I saw and realized based on the reaction to it, you know, it was,
you know, the mood had changed and that was never going to happen again,
because someone knew they were going to lose their job. But, of course, Kevin
Kolb even went back in that game.
Mr. NOWINSKI: So it got better at the end of the year.
DAVIES: Now they also change the rules in the enforcement of rules about
vicious hits. You can't lead with your helmet now, right? And you can't hit a
defenseless player. That is to get someone who is sort of open to contact, you
can't hit him with your helmet, what your forearm or the pads, right?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Or your shoulder.
DAVIES: Shoulder pads.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Right. Right.
DAVIES: And is that working?
Mr. NOWINSKI: You know, that's working to diminish the biggest hits in the
game. You know, the issue is that, you know, as helmets have gotten better, you
know, players have found it very effective to use them as a weapon and itâs
exactly how you can deliver the most forced to somebody and you can easily
knock somebody out if they don't see it coming. Well, you know, that was a, you
know, while it might be an effective strategy, it was extraordinarily dangerous
for the players. And in the rulebook it was actually, you know, technically
illegal but was never being enforced. And so, the NFL stepped up and said okay,
we're going to eliminate these really vicious helmet to helmet hits on
defenseless players. And, you know, it has clearly changed the way the game was
played. And I even heard rumors that scoring was up this year because receivers
were no longer as fearful to run across the middle.
I mean, you know, I mean it's one thing to get the wind knocked out of you. I
think we'll bring that back. But to get knocked out to catch a five yard pass
across the middle is never worth it. So it's been remarkable to see how quickly
the players adjusted and have gone back to better tackling techniques. But, you
know, the reality is, you know, while that's a great change, itâs certainly not
going to solve the problem in any major way by itself. I mean we are
eliminating a few dozen hits from the league each year out of hundreds of
thousands. And so the bigger change that needs to be made is dramatically
reducing actually how we practice this game.
Studies show that 75 percent of the hits to the head a player will take happen
in practice when no one is keeping score. And having played and practiced and
talked to guys who played, no one really enjoys the hitting in practice. And if
we found out that it's bad for you we really should almost eliminated from
practice. Just hit as much as it takes to be safe but then save the hits for
the games. If we did that we would lower everyone's exposure tomorrow by 50
percent and maybe even higher.
DAVIES: And coaches - I assume coaches want people to get in practice because
they feel they are better prepared for the game, right?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Some coaches do. The fact is that there's a few great examples of
programs who never hit, like St. Joseph's in Minnesota who, you know, is a D3
national champion almost every, you know, every few three years, they never hit
The fact is when you talk to programs, hitting in practice is not really
correlated to winning. Itâs just kind of a mindset that people have that if
you're not doing well you hit more, if you win you say it's because you hit
more. You know, it's an easy out. You never, coaches are scared to be that
program that if you never hit in practice then you start losing. People, weâll
say oh itâs because you guys are soft. But we're trying this model in different
We actually worked with, the Sports Legacy Institute worked with a youth
football league in Westport, Connecticut - the Westport Police Athletic League.
We laid out all the research and everything we knew and we said look, these are
the changes you have to make and it really starts with how you practice. They
went from 30 concussions three years ago to 25 last year, to 11 this year and
still won their league.
Mr. NOWINSKI: So they were...
DAVIES: But the issue really is sub-concussive of impacts, really, right? I
mean you want them to...
Mr. NOWINSKI: Right.
DAVIES: Itâs the repetitive hits that aren't concussions that you're really
concerned about here, right?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Right. The repetitive hits that donât cause concussions are the
ones that, you know, they're just thereâs just so many of them and thatâs what
we need to focus on right now to eliminate. Because by eliminating just overall
hits to the head you're also going to dramatically reduce concussions. And so
that's what the conversation we need to have and that's the conversation we are
pushing. And even from the NFL and NFLPA perspective you want to make NFL
players less likely to get CTE. It's not changing the game they're playing
today because the average NFL plays only three years. The reality is you want
to change the 10 years they played prior to the NFL, recognize the fact that
they are doing most of this as children, and dramatically reduce the exposure
they have to brain trauma.
DAVIES: Christopher Nowinski is the author of the book âHead Games: Football's
More after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with Christopher Nowinski. Heâs a former college
football player, and a one-time pro wrestler who is president of the Sports
Legacy Institute, a nonprofit working to fight brain trauma in athletes.
You know, one thing I never quite understood about, you know, helmet to helmet
hits is that a player who isn't a player who leads with his helmet in a hit
observing just as much punishment as he is inflicting?
Mr. NOWINSKI: No, actually. It's actually - itâs kind of the way the physics
works out it's more like a game of Chicken. If you come into the hit with more
force than your opponent you almost always push them backwards and therefore,
your brain doesn't slow down as abruptly as theirs does. And therefore, you
almost certainly find, there are rare situations where the forces are so great
that both guys are concussed.
But my recollection is, if I brought more force into the hit I wouldn't feel a
thing. It actually felt really good. And so if that's the case, it's a game of
Chicken because you're both better off if you don't give each other as you can
helmet to helmet. But the reality is, if you win the battle you're fine. And so
everyone just tries to win the battle and that's why weâve got these enormous
DAVIES: Yeah, long ago coaches used to use the expression for good blocking,
put a hat on somebody.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Yeah.
DAVIES: But, you know, I've also it's one of the things that I just observed
watching the game, is that it always occurred to me that a lot of the helmet
contact seemed almost unavoidable because the game is just so fast. You may be
going in low to hopefully make contact with your shoulder pads, but if at the
last minute the player tackling, you know, takes a dip you could end up
catching the head. But as I've watched the game since they've been tougher on
the rules, it's remarkable to me that these guys are such great athletes. They
can actually avoid using their helmet if they're thinking about it, right?
Mr. NOWINSKI: No, you know, youâre absolutely right. It's a great observation.
You know, to address the first part, you're right. It is, you know, there's
going to be a ton of accidental helmet to helmet contact. I mean, if I was out
there right now trying to tackle Michael Vick, when I got within three feet of
him and I thought I was going to hit him a certain way, the fact is he such a
great athlete he can move his head four feet from where I thought I was going
to hit him. And the problem is it might end up, you know, where I was going and
it might not.
And so the player people find out that if you pick a side. If you say okay, I'm
not going to go straight at his head, I'm going to go after one shoulder, it
makes it harder to tackle him because you're exposing one side of your body and
he could run that way and avoid you. And so it's a tough situation for
defenders and blockers to be in because the safest way to make sure you catch
some of somebody is to aim right for their middle.
But I mean, you know, when you watch â youâre right, when you watch these
defensive backs going after wide receivers across the middle in slow motion,
you know, youâre seeing them put their head, you know, just six inches over
from where it used to be and suddenly the hitâs clean and everyone gets up and
they keep playing rather than having to get a cart to wheel somebody off
because you went helmet to helmet.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Christopher Nowinski who has been an activist to
reduce heavy injuries in football and other sports. He's author of the book
âHead Games: Football's Concussion Crisis.â
Tell us a little more about this brain bank and how it works, what you're
Mr. NOWINSKI: Sure. Sports Legacy Institute partnered with Boston University in
2008 to start the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and with
that is a brain bank under the watch of Dr. Ann McKee. Ann McKee has been a
neuropathologist for years and has a brain bank of about 1,000 brains. And I
said well, we're going to start getting you the brains of athletes and start
looking at CTE. And so what's been great is, partially because of the publicity
and partially because we work very hard, weâve been able to acquire the brains
57 athletes since we started in 2008 - including nearly 30 football players,
boxers, hockey players, pro wrestlers. And so, you know, we're finally getting
an understanding as to what is going on inside the brains of athletes and it
really is telling us that we've been extremely reckless and we need to change
DAVIES: If a layman looks at a brain thatâs had this chronic traumatic damage,
does it look different than a normal brain?
Mr. NOWINSKI: Depends how advanced it is. If it's a young person that's passed
away, no, grossly itâll look the same. If it's an older person, for example,
Hall of Famer, Lou Creekmur, NFL player died in â82, it's smaller. It's much
smaller and the ventricles in the middle are much larger, just because the
brain has lost so much mass from cells dying. The way, you know, we can't
diagnose this disease in living people right now so we have to look at them
after death. And the only disease you can really see is when you look under a
When you look cell by cell, you see a toxic protein called tau that has been
slowly choking the cell to death. Essentially, it used to be part of the
structure of the axon. The swelling from the injury probably caused it to fall
apart and start to behave abnormally and cause degeneration in the brain. So
you see these - they actually paint the tissue with an antibody that turns the
toxic tau protein brown. So you see these brown splotches on a microscopic
level, cell by cell.
And in some places in some of these brains you will see more dead or dying or
diseased cells than you see living cells in parts of the brain that control
things like memory and emotional control. And so it really is no surprise that
these players suffer so greatly because their brain, you know, is literally
DAVIES: Before I let you go, are you still experiencing symptoms?
Mr. NOWINSKI: I am not experiencing the headaches anymore. I don't have the
sleepwalking anymore. My short-term memory is actually pretty good. And so I
think I'm out of the woods when it comes to post-concussion syndrome. The
problem is I have to be concerned that chronic traumatic encephalopathy is in
my future because 90 percent of the guys in our brain bank who had the same
brain trauma exposure that I have have CTE.
And so when they got into their late 30s and 40s their short-term memory
started disappearing, they started developing impulse control issues, they
started developing mood disorders and depression. And so I'm keenly aware that
every time I overreact to something that I don't know if that's just me or I
don't know if my brain is slowly falling apart. And so I deal with that and I
try to pour that energy into the work that we're doing so we can eventually
have a treatment for people like me and maybe a cure.
DAVIES: Let me ask one more question. If you tell young players what the risks
are and count on them making intelligent decisions, it's got to be tough. If,
you know, if you're in your 20s and the rewards include playing on Sunday in
front of 70,000 screaming fans, making a ton of money, becoming a celebrity, a
lot of people will take all kinds of risks, won't they?
Mr. NOWINSKI: You know, that's a great question. I'm glad you brought it up.
You know, I'm a big believer that adults with informed consent can do - any
dangerous job they want. I mean look at me, I used to go through tables off the
top rope on your average Friday night as my career. I thought it was great.
The issue here is not - so I don't begrudge players that, as long as they've
been told this information and say, you know what, I'm going to take the risk.
It's worth $10 million to me and will set up my family for the rest of my life,
I'm okay with that. The problem is that 95 percent of the players that are
playing football are under 18 and there's no such thing as informed consent for
children on this issue.
And so what, you know, we have to give them a chance by educating them, and
then we have to force them to adhere to responsible medical practices by
sitting out and letting their brain recover. And separating the kids' game of
football from the adult game of football is something that we need to do going
forward. I mean, I think when you step back and you hear old baseball players
say they're lucky that they're adults that get to play a kid's game, I think of
football the opposite way, and I think we have kids playing an adultâs game.
And we need to separate what those two games are because, you know, kids can't,
you throw away a kidâs future just have a little fun after school and on the
DAVIES: Well, Christopher Nowinski, it's really been interesting and I wish you
the best of luck. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. NOWINSKI: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Christopher Nowinski is the author of the book "Head Games: Football's
Concussion Crisis" and president of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit
working to fight brain trauma in athletes. You can find a link on our website,
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
How Traumatic Events Change Our View Of Language
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The Tucson shootings have many people examining the intensity of our political
rhetoric. Do violent metaphors spark violent acts?
Our linguist Geoff Nunberg isn't sure but he says that isn't the point.
GEOFF NUNBERG: Sarah Palin was right. It was irresponsible for people to say
that she had anything to do with the Tucson shootings. I'm not sure why she had
to bring blood libel and the persecution of the medieval Jews into it but she
certainly could say it was a bum rap.
But people kept talking about political rhetoric even after the facts came out.
For some, it was just an opportunity to bash the right. But most people were
worried about the continuing potential for violence. In polls, the majority of
Americans said that the tone of debate has become so inflammatory that it could
push people over the edge.
It's hard to prove that connection. There are more threats on politicians on
both sides now, but not a lot of people are unhinged enough to actually try to
carry out attacks. And once somebody's that far gone, he could be getting his
marching orders from anywhere - Fox News, Grand Theft Auto, or the planet
But these attacks are disturbing even when they can't be directly linked to the
language and symbols of political debate. How can you not be brought up short
when a congresswoman is shot after she's been targeted on a campaign map with a
crosshair? It's the feeling you'd have if you told somebody, oh, drop dead, and
then two days later he keeled over with a fatal heart attack. Not that you
caused it or even wished it, but all of a sudden your words are rumbling with
their literal meaning.
The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is
the continuation of politics by other means. But to listen to the way we talk,
the opposite is true, as well. The language of politics is, you should excuse
the expression, shot through with martial imagery - with its campaigns, war
rooms, battleground states, political bombshells and attack ads. And that's not
to mention the linguistic carnage that pervades our everyday speech - catch
flak, take no prisoners, crash and burn.
But it takes a violent event like Tucson to make people self-conscious about
this language. 9/11 had the same effect - for a few months, we were all
monitoring our words for any hint of semantic mayhem. I recall just after the
attacks listening to the San Francisco Giants' announcer Mike Krukow describing
the replay of a monster homer by Andres Galarraga. Boy, he said, he really
murder - he really hit that one good.
Some people argue that purging our speech of all these metaphors would make us
kinder, gentler conversationalists. Instead of saying she shot down his
arguments, why don't we say she unraveled them or danced them into a corner?
That was presumably what Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree had in mind
when she urged the Republicans to remove the word killing from the name of what
they're calling the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.
This didn't make a lot of sense to me at first. In that context the word kill
doesn't conjure up any violent images, no more than it does when we talk about
killing the lights, a deal, a bottle of scotch, or a couple of hours between
flights. In fact, the proliferation of these denatured metaphors is really a
tribute to the civilizing process, as we sublimate our aggression into more
Still, House Speaker John Boehner started to replace job killing with job
destroying and job crushing in his remarks. Those weren't exactly nonviolent
alternatives, but there's a point to the gesture anyway. Once you start being
careful about these dead metaphors, you're apt to be more circumspect about the
ones that still have some blood running through their veins.
The fact is that we no sooner domesticate one figure of speech than somebody
introduces another to evoke a vivid image of combat. When fire away gets tired,
you can go to lock and load. And while a crosshair may function much like a
target, it isn't so tame that you can use it as the symbol of a discount store.
For that matter, there's a difference between telling supporters at a
fundraiser not to be outgunned, and telling them if they bring a knife, you
bring a gun. The message doesn't change, but the adrenaline level does.
It's a strength of the modern political culture that these apocalyptic
metaphors no longer rouse people to armed insurrection. But then, indignation
has never had so many recreational outlets before. We can spend all our waking
hours listening to broadcast political invective or writing sarcastic blog
comments to excoriate the morons on the other side. That's the dirty little
secret of political vituperation - left and right, we all like to go there.
But even if these violent reveries are almost never acted out, they coarsen the
debate and dehumanize the other side. In fact, the scenarios behind those
fantasies go a long way toward creating the so-called climate of hate. If
you're going to imagine yourself riding to the rescue of the Republic, you're
going to need to see your opponents as nefarious alien life forms. You put on a
cowboy suit, and suddenly everybody else is an Indian.
DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California, Berkeley.
You can follow us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you
can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.