Is There A 'Concussion Crisis' In Sports?

Scientific evidence is mounting on the links between sports and concussions. Host Michel Martin explores what some are calling the "concussion crisis" for athletes. She speaks with Chris Nowinski, author and co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, a group focused on researching concussions in sports.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are a sports fan - and so many of us are - you're probably still enjoying the thrilling performances that we're seeing at the Summer Olympic Games. Today though, for this special broadcast we are going to spend the entire hour talking about some of the hard-hitting team sports that Americans love to watch and play most.

And we're going to focus on what some are calling the concussion crisis. Why call it a crisis? Thousands of former football players and their families have filed multiple lawsuits against the NFL, arguing that these players are now suffering from dementia and other neurological conditions as a result of their playing days and, they claim, the league knew about this possibility and didn't tell them.

There are also the tragic stories of former players committing suicide and research showing that some of them had suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. As millions of young American athletes get ready for a new season of school sports, brain injuries have become a top concern for players, coaches and parents.

We are going to get a variety of perspectives on this issue this hour, including from parents of young athletes, a doctor who studies this issue, and a former NFL standout. But first, to set the stage, we've called upon Chris Nowinski. He is the co-founder and president of Sports Legacy Institute. That's a non-profit research center that studies the effects of brain trauma on athletes.

Part of Nowinski's work has involved convincing families of deceased players to donate their brains to researchers who can study them for evidence of head trauma. Chris Nowinski is also the author of "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis." That's the basis of a new documentary with the same name coming out this fall. And Chris Nowinski is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS NOWINSKI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So could we just start with the basics? Because we've been hearing a lot about brain injuries in sports news and we've been talking about player safety a lot, you know, on this program, but I just wanted to go back to the beginning for people who haven't tapped into those conversations.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. What is it?

NOWINSKI: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, is a degenerative brain disease that's now been linked to trauma to the brain that we used to call punch drunk or dementia pugilistica because we thought it was only in boxers. And now, only through at this point studying the brains of athletes after they pass away, we're finding out that a lot of other athletes have this disease - especially football players, ice hockey players - from taking too many blows to the head.

MARTIN: And your center helped determined one of the most famous known cases of CTE resulting from football injuries, that of Dave Duerson. Some people would argue that that's kind of what put CTE on everybody's radar. He's the former Chicago Bears star who took his own life and he wanted his brain studied after he died. What would be the connection between CTE and suicide?

NOWINSKI: Well, the connection between CTE and suicide is very much unknown. You know, there are some theories that CTE does cause problems with impulse control, does cause problems with mood and depression and all of that. It could potentially contribute to an act of suicide. There's the theory that their behavior changes so much that their life changes in a big way.

For example, Dave Duerson went from being a very successful businessman to $20 million in debt through making a series of bad decisions that may have been linked to his brain disease. He became violent with his family, his wife and children, and his wife divorced him and his children had an estranged relationship, and that could have contributed to it.

So, you know, suicide is a very, very complex act; however, we do have a number of athletes with the disease who did commit suicide or multiple suicide attempts. And suicide is linked to brain injury. So we need to investigate that further.

MARTIN: But what about something you also alluded to earlier, the argument that part of the reason that a number of athletes are having difficulty in later life is that their lives are so strange, in a way, especially if you get the professional leagues. You make a lot of money, you know, early in life and you get a lot of attention early in life and then it just stops.

You couple that with oftentimes very sort of poor financial planning or ignorance about financial matters, and it's really the social factors that lead to some of these terrible stories that we're seeing, you know, post-football. What about that? I mean, have you investigated that along with the physical issues?

NOWINSKI: What you're talking about is the idea of transitional difficulties.

MARTIN: Yeah.

NOWINSKI: I know that's been a focus of discussions with the NFL Players Association. I serve on their Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. Transition is a real issue but if you actually look at the bulk of the cases that people think they attribute, the suicide of this later life impairment to transition, I don't believe it's transition in many of those cases.

Like Dave Duerson was 50 years old and well established in his career and his community. It wasn't transition that was his problem. So I'm sure transition is affecting some people who struggle but, you know, I must say myself I was 24 when I retired from my career when I was on television every week with WWE.

And, you know, the transition was difficult but I would say when you look at the pathology in these brains, that is in a lot of these cases is a very significant factor to overcome. When you can't remember things, when you can't control your anger, when you're depressed, when you have constant headaches, that's a much larger problem than missing the spotlight.

And so while we do need to help athletes with transition, this isn't a problem that just affects NFL players or famous players; this is affecting people who just played in college. This is affecting people who just played through high school and they're having the same destructive outcomes.

MARTIN: I should mention that, you know, you actually know about some of these brain trauma symptoms firsthand. You suffered six concussions yourself that you know of, right?

NOWINSKI: Well, actually I'm now up to seven.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

NOWINSKI: So the number grows.

MARTIN: You played football at Harvard, then you went on to professional wrestling with the WWE. I don't know how many Harvard alums went to the WWE that I can think of.

(LAUGHTER)

NOWINSKI: I was the first. We've had seven presidents out of Harvard and I'm the first pro wrestler.

MARTIN: You're the first pro wrestler out of Harvard. And do you mind if I ask you do you still suffer symptoms? I mean, do you have some of the things you described?

NOWINSKI: My problems were worst acutely after my - what I suffered was post-concussion syndrome so that was right after the concussion. The symptoms didn't go away. So had headaches for five years. I developed sleepwalking out of the blue, which affected me most nights for three and a half years and was very dangerous.

I had depression issues. My short-term memory was very poor. It got better and I would say that I'm 33 now and I do feel better than I did five years ago, but I'm not a hundred percent. I still can't exercise at a hundred percent with exertion without getting nauseous. I still, I still - I'm not the guy I used to be.

But I'm at an interesting point. If I have CTE, it's progressing and I will start to have worse symptoms. If I don't, then what I'm dealing with is just long-term post-concussion.

MARTIN: We're talking to Chris Nowinski. He's the co-founder and president of Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University that researches the brains of deceased athletes to fight brain trauma in athletes. But why do you think this issue is coming to the fore now? Like, you kind of alluded to this earlier in the conversation. There are a lot of sports that involve head-to-head contact or blows to the head.

I mean, football obviously, ice hockey being one, but also soccer. You know what I mean? And thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in these sports over the years at, you know, various levels, but why do you think this is coming to the fore now?

NOWINSKI: Well, it's a lot of very complex reasons but it includes that we just simply weren't looking for this evidence before. You go read old newspaper reports about ex-athletes coming to disastrous ends like you hear about now, we used to say that it was because they missed the game. They were having some sort of mid-life crisis. Or it was a character weakness.

Now, that we actually started looking for the disease in the brains of athletes outside of boxing, the evidence is what people have needed - the actual pictures of the damaged brains - to believe that this is a real thing. And it started with football but then until we found multiple cases in ice hockey, ice hockey didn't necessarily buy into the CTE link.

And soccer, we don't have soccer cases yet. They do exist in the medical literature. There is a case but because we don't have good pictures and a name to go with it, the people in soccer still think they might be exempt, which they aren't.

MARTIN: Do you think that football can be made safe enough to play where you and other people who care about this can watch it with a sense of ethical peace?

NOWINSKI: Well, it's a great question and I'd really like to divide that question to two answers. When you're talking about adults making decisions with the job they have to support their family, we allow adults to do dangerous jobs if we believe they understand the risks and that we don't tell firemen not to run into burning buildings. We don't tell policemen not to chase criminals. We get that that may end up in a bad way, but that's their job and that's the job they chose.

And so, the NFL - what's interesting is the NFL doesn't have to go as far as youth football to reform. NFL is pure entertainment and their job is to sell tickets, and adults can choose. If you want to make $5 million a year, but it might give you an increased risk for long term problems, that's a choice you get to make.

But we don't have that same choice for children, and so what amazes me is that we have this national discussion about whether the NFL is too dangerous to even allow grown men to participate in and yet we put all sorts of things in place, including teams of doctors on the sidelines and unbelievable access to medical resources and technologies and education and we don't provide any of those things to children that we expose to the exact same game by the same rules, knowing that brains are more vulnerable when you're a child, knowing they don't even have the verbal skills as a child to tell you when something's wrong. When they feel a little woozy, they haven't been told or they don't understand that that means I have a concussion. I need to speak up.

And so the reality is the NFL doesn't have to go that much further. That really is the decisions of the educated and informed athletes negotiating this through the NFLPA, with NFL, about what level of safety is rational.

With children, though, we barely have a mechanism through which to make it safer and youth football will have to reform in a big way. We really need to, again, step up and say, look, this is a dangerous game. It's a dangerous activity. We designed it the way we did. We need to change it. We need to change it now. We can't wait for these kids to grow up and have these problems.

MARTIN: That's Chris Nowinski. He's co-founder and president of the Sports Legacy Institute. He's author of the book, "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis," and we caught up with him in Philadelphia.

Chris Nowinski, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NOWINSKI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, we continue today's special broadcast focusing on concussions in some of our country's most popular sports. Next, we'll focus on football. We'll ask a former pro-baller and two sports reporters who cover the game if concern about serious head injuries is changing the way players think about it.

SHALISE MANZA YOUNG: They've trained the majority of their lives to get to this point and they don't want to think about what's in the future.

MARTIN: We'll also talk about what the NFL is putting in place to address these concerns. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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