LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When a concussion forced WWE’s Christopher Nowinski to retire in 2004, the professional wrestler and former Harvard football player wanted to understand his condition better and set out to raise awareness for sports head trauma.
The result was his 2006 book “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis” and a new career as a concussion activist.
Nowinski’s book is the inspiration for the documentary “Head Games,” directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), which opens in theaters Friday. The film explores the concussion crisis in American sports such as football, hockey and soccer as well as wrestling.
Nowinski, who will turn 34 on Monday, talked to Reuters about his personal struggles with numerous concussions, his work in educating others about them and his efforts to encourage the sports industry to take measures to prevent them.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about concussions?
A: “That they don’t have long-term consequences and that once you feel better, you’re fine. You may not be fine and need to rest and let your brain recover. Secondly, we have to face the fact that some athletes are developing a degenerative brain disease (known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE). The brain is far more fragile than we realize.”
Q: The film has some big sports figures, such as former National Hockey League player Keith Primeau and former Olympian and U.S. professional soccer player Cindy Parlow Cone, revealing their concussions for the first time onscreen. Why do players hide it?
A: “A lot of us don’t want to put the burden on our parents or the people around us. You don’t want your mom up all night worrying about your future. But also professionally. If you try to get jobs in the future and you’re out there saying ‘I have bad short-term memory,’ that’s going to hurt you.”
Q: What are your own struggles with the effects of your concussions?
A: “I can’t drive without a GPS. I can’t exercise without getting a headache and without feeling sick... I don’t have the patience I once did. I take a stimulant for my cognition every day. The days I forget to take it, I notice it. I don’t even know what my own baseline is anymore. I don’t know if I‘m any good without medication.”
Q: You are co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University that researches and studies CTE in athletes and military veterans. Have you signed the brain donation papers for yourself when the time comes?
A: “I was the first guy! Virtually everybody in the ‘brain bank’ who took as much trauma to the head as I did has the disease. Right now we don’t even have a way to diagnose it or treat it while the person is alive. I‘m so driven to find a way to treat this disease while I still have what I have.”
Q: There’s a scene in the documentary where you’re visiting a high school to give a talk about the dangers of concussions. The school’s athletic trainer verbally attacks you for “scaring” everyone. Do some see activists like you as anti-sports?
A: “We’re not anti-sports, we’re pro-children. We’re not attacking sports, we’re defending the brains of kids who don’t know any better, who will ram their head into anything. We’re preventing CTE in the next generations of athletes.”
Q: Should parents think twice about signing up their kids for sports?
A: “We should definitely still play sports. There are many redeeming qualities to sports. But there’s zero redeeming qualities to head trauma. We have a culture that’s very accepting of brain trauma and that needs to change. It needs to be unacceptable to put kids in sports where we’re encouraging them getting hit in the head.”
Q: What is the reaction to the film so far?
A: “It’s been overwhelmingly positive. People were surprised how fair it was. They thought it would be sensationalistic. And they loved the argument I had with the athletic trainer! I hope people are inspired to make the change we need to make in their own communities and then the larger national movement. I hope the documentary accelerates the pace of making sports safer.”
Reporting By Zorianna Kit, editing by Nichola Groom and Gunna Dickson