Brain trauma activists reveal facts on athletics

Last Thursday, Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) gave a lecture titled “The Impact of Concussions in Youth and College Sports” on the MainStage of the ’62 Center. They spoke to a near capacity auditorium of students, many of whom were athletes, and community members.

Cantu and Nowinski are the co-founders of the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization devoted to advancing the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes. Cantu is a clinical professor and co-director of the CSTE; he also works in the neurology departments of several Massachusetts hospitals and consults with professional teams on head injuries. Nowinski is a Harvard graduate and former All-Ivy-League football player whose World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) career was abruptly ended by head trauma. Nowinski authored the book Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis in 2006.

Cantu took the stage first, elaborating on the symptoms of concussions and the necessary precautions to prevent prolonged head trauma. Cantu spoke to the rising profile of head trauma in contact sports but cautioned that research on preventing head trauma is still in its infancy.

Cantu emphasized that athletes should not ignore symptoms of concussions, since not recuperating from head trauma can lead to long-term and irreversible brain damage. He listed potential symptoms of concussions and outlined a regimen to avoid permanent brain damage that consisted of physical and cognitive rest followed by gradual reintroduction to athletic activities.

After the NCAA was sued in 2007 for failing to take the proper actions to treat the head injury of Preston Plevretes, a football player at LaSalle University who suffered serious brain damage following a concussion in a 2005 game, it enacted a series of measures to prevent similar tragedies. Cantu listed some of the significant advances the organization has made, including a mandatory contract with student-athletes pledging that they understand and will report any symptoms of a concussion they may experience.

Nowinski followed Cantu by relating his experience with head trauma as a football player at Harvard and as a character in the WWE. Nowinski suffered a series of head injuries that caused him to suffer from behavioral changes, loss of energy and sleepwalking.

“In those days, you didn’t stop wrestling,” Nowinski said, “so we kept going. We were never taught to go to a doctor or rest, so I kept going for five straight weeks … Finally I met Dr. Cantu, who was doctor number eight for me, and he was the first doctor who didn’t buy that I had only had one concussion.”

Nowinski discovered that he had been suffering from concussions for most of his athletic career and that his condition was the result of a series of head traumas from which his brain suffered permanent damage.

After his head injury forced him to retire from the WWE, Nowinski dedicated himself to educating other athletes and penned Head Games to reveal the mistakes athletes and sports organizations make when addressing head trauma. “I put all this information in a book to change the world,” Nowinski said. “It didn’t change the world, but I became aware of research on athletes who died [from brain trauma].”

Nowinski indicated the existence of a fundamental education gap with regard to head injuries. “We spend hundreds of hours with these kids talking about their technique and the rules of the game, but we don’t spend five minutes talking to them about concussions,” he said.

During the Q&A session, Cantu and Nowinski emphasized that the solution to the high occurrence of head trauma in athletes is through education. “All the best fixes are free because the best answer is education,” Cantu said.