TJB Interview: Head Games Author Chris Nowinski

A few weeks ago, HBO aired an episode of Real Sports where they interviewed athletes (mostly NFL players) who have dealt with health risks due to concussions. Jets fans have known that this has been an issue for years … Al Toon, Wayne Chrebet are just a few names of players we love who have had careers ended from consussions. Right now though the movement to protect players has gained a lot of momentum in recent months. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has installed a new “whistle blower initiative” around injuries and is hosting an event in Chicago to address the matter seriously.

One of the major reasons for the sudden push to protect players largely thanks to Chris Nowinski, also known to WWE fans as Chris Harvard. Nowinski played collegiate football at Harvard, and the young wrestler made a name for himself on RAW in 2002. Unfortunately after a quick rise, his career was cut short in 2003 by multiple concussions. Since then, Nowinski has taken on a number of projects like becoming a political correspondent for WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote! campaign.

During his recovery, Nowinski was also working on another project, a book called Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues, which has been instrumental in raising the awareness on the subject. Nowinski seems at ease to communicate to a broad cross section of people, from brain doctors, to WWE fans on his myspace page he is an excellent candidate to push forth this message. Chris was kind enough to answer some questions on the subject and the progress of the NFL in this area.

TheJetsBlog: Benjamin Disraeli once said, “the best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.” … how would you describe your path to writing Head Games, did you write it to learn more about the subject, or was it more based on all the information you had found in your search and a desire increase public awareness?

Chris Nowinski: I undertook the very earliest stages of my research simply to try to understand why I wasn’t recovering from my concussion, and what that meant for me. I knew my way around the medical literature, and was very disappointed in the answers I was hearing from all my doctors except for Dr. Cantu (I saw many doctors before him) – and even there I wasn’t getting all the answers. Very quickly I realized that there was an enormous gap between what the top doctors knew about concussions and what everyone else knew. That gap has hurt a lot of people. The goal of the book was to narrow that gap.

TJB: How hard was writing this book initially?

CN: This book was incredibly hard, not only because I hadn’t written since college, but also because I was in the acute stages of recovery from the injury. I had a real hard time putting sentences together at the beginning, and early drafts of the work reflect that. I’m certain all the reading and writing I did was like cognitive rehabilitation.

TJB: Out of writing the book, this topic has started to pick up steam, have you noticed a change in the league’s approach on the matter since last fall?

CN: On or around May 22 Commissioner Goodell announced that at the owners’ meetings they put forward new proposals for better concussion education and management. As many insiders have said to me, it’s an amazing success story to already to see the NFL react so dramatically on this issue only 7 months after the book came out and the issue began building steam. However, their proposals are mostly PR moves, and at this moment in time I firmly believe players are less safe than they were in 2006. Unfortunately, at this point the NFL either doesn’t understand the cultural aspects of this injury (and therefore they haven’t read my book) or they aren’t that concerned with protecting their players’ short term and long term health.

TJB: Goodell recently announced his “whistle blower” initiative, has the league been in contact with you on this matter or sought your advice? Have they asked you or Dr. Cantu to join them next month in Chicago?

CN: The Ted Johnson rule? They have not been in contact with me. I believe they have invited Dr. Cantu, Dr. Bailes, Dr. Guskiewicz, and Dr. Barr, and perhaps one or two other of their top critics to Chicago. I will be in town visiting my family for Father’s Day, and may stick around.

TJB: Jets fans are acutely aware of Dr. Elliot Pellman’s shortcomings when it comes to this issue. What do you think of the stewardship of the NFL MTBI Committee, and his work with the Jets?

CN: A tragedy. Read chapter eight of my book. I dedicated a whole chapter to his work.

TJB: When I heard you on WEEI, I think you had mentioned that to truly follow proper medical procedures regarding head injuries, team rosters would have to get substantially bigger. If a team carries a 53 man roster in the fall, how many more spots would the team need to carry?

CN: The quick math is that around 50% of football players suffer concussions each season according to anonymous retrospective surveys. In one of those studies the mean was three. There is an ancient rule (established in 1945 by the Harvard football team doc) that if you get three concussions in one season you should end your season. One would have to do some impressive calculations considering most concussions in that study weren’t diagnosed (which enable guys to get more than three concussions) but the long and short of it is that if you diagnosed them all and forced players to sit out until they recovered (days and weeks at a time) you would have guys sitting out all the time, the replacements also suffering concussions and then sitting out, and those who reach three turning in their helmets. You could run out of players quickly.

TJB: In terms of the NFL, who’s most at fault here? Is it the players who don’t disclose injuries for fear of losing their job, or is it coaches for pushing players back the field, or is it the NFLPA for not building this properly into their CBA or does it lie with the league office?

CN: Concussions are a cultural problem and everyone has a role to play in terms of getting up to speed, but only a couple of groups are actively trying to impede progress with misinformation campaigns and strongarm tactics.

TJB: Ted Johnson has been critical to your discovery process, but what about active players? In general, what have you heard from them? Are they more hesitant to come forward?

CN: No player will talk on the record for fear of getting blacklisted by the league. Without guaranteed contracts one false [step] could cost them millions. However, I have a very good understanding of what is happening right now.

TJB: What can the average fan do about this issue for NFL Players to ensure a safe environment for them?

CN: Fans play a role. First and foremost, they need to learn about and respect this injury. We need to stop glorifying the athlete who is knocked out and returns to the game – in most cases his brain is so scrambled, and he’s so full of adrenaline that he is not making a heroic choice, he is simply following instinct. And in the long run, he may be taking years off of his life.

TJB: You state that 9/10 concussions go undiagnosed. If for instance, a reader’s son takes a hard hit in a high school football game, what are some simple tips to be better aware of a possible concussion?

CN: If a parent sees there kids acting at all out of the ordinary after taking a big hit, always investigate further. When in doubt, sit ‘em out.

TJB: As usual, the change is going to have to be made from the bottom up, for readers, what can they do to help make thr child’s town rec leagues, school leagues, etc. safer and more aware regarding concussions and head injuries?

CN: Start with Head Games or many of the articles freely available at concussioncrisis.com to get people aware that this is the biggest health issue in sports, and then look for some new programs coming soon.

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