Former WWE wrestler takes on concussion crisis

UMMS symposium addresses brain trauma and neurodegeneration

By Lisa M. Larson

UMass Medical School Communications

September 11, 2012
Christopher Nowinski

A kick to the head forced Christopher Nowinski to end a promising wrestling career with the WWE, but the painful concussion also served as a wake-up call for the Harvard-educated athlete to the dangers of brain trauma in sports and an impetus to launch a national crusade for safer play.


Nowinski, who will speak on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 9 a.m. in Amphitheatre I at a symposium on how brain trauma contributes to neurodegeneration, said you don’t have to be a professional athlete to be affected by post-concussion syndrome.

“There’s a ticking clock going on in a whole lot of people for how long their brains will remain useful,” said Nowinski, co-founder and president of Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit that studies the effects of brain trauma on athletes, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine. “I’m talking about the average Joes who play and get hit. Despite the fact that people think this is a disease for rich, old guys, it really is everyone who’s been hit in the head. They all have some level of risk.”

The UMMS symposium, led by Robert H. Brown Jr., DPhil, MD, chair and professor of neurology, will review the major themes in the pathology and molecular biology of brain trauma and hypotheses about how such injuries cause delayed, progressive loss of neurological function. The event will include presentations by Nowinski, faculty from Boston University School of Medicine, Jean King, PhD, professor of psychiatry, and Nils Henninger, MD, assistant professor of neurology.

Nowinski, 33, began playing youth contact sports at age 6 and worked his way up to the Harvard football team and the WWE. He believes he suffered about six concussions, the last of which forced him to retire from the ring in 2004. Diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, he fought crippling headaches and difficulty concentrating. His quest for help led to his realization that athletes, coaches and even medical professionals failed to recognize and act on the severity of brain trauma among athletes of all ages. Nowinski wrote “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis” in 2006 and a movie based on the book is being released this month.

His goal is to convince the nation of the danger of brain trauma in sports and better protect athletes. He is especially passionate about kids. Parents and coaches need better training about head injuries, he said, and sports such as soccer, football and hockey require much more stringent rules to prevent hits to the head.

“The message is a child’s brain is incredibly fragile,” he said. “If we’re going to expose them to trauma that they wouldn’t otherwise receive in life, there’s a long list of things we need to provide them that we aren’t doing now. It shouldn’t be like it is right now in sports, Russian roulette with your child’s future.”