Former WWE wrestler taps in against concussion deniers
By Ken Belson
Christopher Nowinski was rubbing elbows at the New York Athletic Club one Thursday night last month, when the tweets and texts started rolling in. He was there to speak at a fundraiser for head-trauma research when Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was carted from an NFL game with a severe concussion, the second gruesome head hit the player took in a week.
Nowinski ducked into another room and immediately got to work, posting to social media and fielding reporters’ calls, his voice rising to be heard over the din and inflamed by what he saw as an egregious violation of player safety.
A former football player at Harvard and professional wrestler, Nowinski, 44, retired from sports nearly two decades ago after multiple concussions left him with debilitating headaches and depression. Seeking treatment turned Nowinski into an advocate for research on brain trauma, and he now spends most of his time raising funds, contributing to scientific papers and asking the families of those affected by head injuries to donate their brains to study.
Tagovailoa’s hit came just days after Nowinski returned from sitting with the family of one of his closest college football teammates as they received the news that he had CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head hits. Nowinski’s sadness about his friend’s demise morphed into anger that the NFL was not doing more to protect players.
“Two concussions in 5 days can kill someone,” he wrote in a Twitter post. “This can end careers. How are we so stupid in 2022.”
Nowinski uploaded a video days later in which he chastised the NFL for allowing Tagovailoa to take the field.
“I hate that I have to remind you of this, but these are human beings with futures that will someday be husbands and fathers,” he said. “And we need to protect their brains the best we can while they’re out there helping you make money.”
Known as Chris Harvard in his pro wrestling days, which included a stint in the WWE, Nowinski knows the draw of a good antagonist.
He has divebombed NFL news conferences to dispute in real time the league’s messaging on concussions. On Twitter and TikTok, Nowinski dissects game-day video showing head collisions that leave players grasping their helmets and wobbling to their feet, and his posts have become popular reposts for athletes, media and scientists. Through his confrontational style, Nowinski is becoming a highly influential commentator on how the NFL and other sports leagues handle concussions.
Researchers and clinicians who study brain trauma are deliberate in discussing their work, and grandstanding within the respected medical community is abhorred. But Nowinski, who holds a doctorate in behavioral science and is a co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports athletes and others affected by concussions and CTE, is uniquely suited to take on the sports establishment in public forums in ways that draw attention to ongoing brain-trauma research and create pressure for leagues to acknowledge the science.
“He is very serious and rigorous in the sense that I’ve never seen him make declarations that weren’t based in very real scientific results,” said Dr. Lea T. Grinberg, professor of neurology and pathology at the University of California, San Francisco. She said that when the earliest studies of traumatic brain injuries showed a relationship to CTE, the results were often disputed. “Step by step, Chris has been able to respond to the criticisms by engaging the scientific community to answer these questions.”
“He was flamboyant in the ring,” said Bruce Miller, a dementia researcher and co-founder of the Tau Consortium, “but not necessarily with the science.”
This week, in a page taken straight out of the pro wrestling handbook, Nowinski plans to challenge doctors from around the world at the International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport, where leading scientists and consultants to global sports leagues create recommendations for spotting and treating concussions based on emerging research.
This month, the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest biomedical researcher and the United States’ biggest funder of brain research, responded to research for which Nowinski was a co-author, and changed its official position to acknowledge that CTE “is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries,” a watershed decision that is expected to have wide-ranging impact on collision sports around the world.
The NIH stance comes three years after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that there was a causal relationship between collision sports and CTE.
At the conference, Nowinski will make his case that head trauma causes CTE as researchers write the consensus statement on the latest research on concussions, a veritable Bible for leagues, trainers, doctors and academics. The group has long held that no causal relationship has “been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.”
Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame inductee, was the first NFL player found to have had CTE, three years after his death in 2002, but it took the group until 2013 to acknowledge that the disease was unique in its consensus statement.
“I feel like I’m there representing all the deceased athletes that we have lost to CTE, and that all those tragedies were preventable,” Nowinski said. “I’m there to remind them that if they don’t acknowledge a cause-and-effect relationship between contact sports and CTE, a lot more people are going to get hurt and it’s going to ruin their reputations.”
To Nowinski, the group’s slow embrace of the research on brain trauma is a way for the conference’s doctors to shield from liability the sports leagues that often hire them to consult on their concussions policy. The group runs the annual conference with funding from the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, World Rugby and other sports organizations.
By acknowledging a link between their sports and potential brain damage, he said, the leagues could open themselves to lawsuits from former players who have experienced cognitive decline.
Jiri Dvorak, one of the leaders of the conference, did not respond to a request for comment.
Nowinski, who advises the NFL Players Association and the Ivy League on traumatic brain injury, said he developed his adversarial approach after retiring from the ring in 2004. He sought treatment for his headaches and depression in Boston, and in 2006 he published “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues,” which was later filmed as a documentary.
In 2007, Nowinski sought out doctors at Boston University, who were studying Alzheimer’s disease, and helped them acquire the brains of former NFL players. The doctors found they had CTE, some of the first known cases of the disease in football players, and they encouraged Nowinski to use his Ivy League pedigree and megaphone as an athlete to raise awareness for their work.
“I came at it as a 30-year-old brain-damaged guy with headaches every day and nothing to lose, so why not make some noise?” Nowinski said. “I was coming at it as an advocate knowing that I was basically untouchable.”