By Alec Winshel
Chris Nowinski, PhD, is the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to leading the fight against concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Dr. Nowinski has been an All-Ivy football player at Harvard College, a professional wrestler with the WWE, and a neuroscientist with more than thirty publications. He is a member of the NFL Players Association Mackey-White Health & Safety Committee and has received multiple awards for his advocacy on behalf on athletes.
Dr. Nowinski visited Harvard Law School to speak with members of the Committee on Sports & Entertainment Law. Afterwards, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Nowinski about the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s work, the NFL’s response to concussion-related litigation, and the potential for federal legislative action. Our conversation is reproduced below. Comments have been edited for clarity.
It seems like the Concussion Legacy Foundation deals with medical goals, educational goals, and legal goals. How do you balance those competing interests as an organization?
I wouldn’t say that we have legal goals, although we are dabbling in legislation around football because football is unique. What’s interesting having done this for so long is that we have to keep all the plates spinning, and then you’ll find that the opportunity opens up in one place or another because we need people to change their minds, and when they change their minds you get a chance to do something. We’ve built programs that work and, as soon as a door opens up, we run through it and try to make some changes.
What are the most effective ways to make decision makers at the local level, like the families and coaches of players?
We do most of our reaching people through media. What I realized very early on is that the powers that be will very rarely invite us in because they perceive what we say as threatening. I remember the first time I was invited to a high school to present on concussions. The football coach scheduled a mandatory weightlifting session, so the football team couldn’t hear my presentation because he didn’t want them scared of concussions. We try to place a ton of stories in the press that drive interest in this and forces organizations to respond to what’s happening. We also try to get things to trickle down from the top. I realized right at the beginning that if the NFL changed on concussions, then everyone would change because they are seen as the “toughest” and so, if they take concussions seriously, everyone else will, too.
What do you think about the adequacy of the NFL’s concussion settlement fund?
The NFL’s concussion settlement fund, from my perspective, is grossly inadequate relative to the costs and the damage to the players and their families. Developing early onset dementia or Parkinson’s Disease destroys lives, destroys families, destroys kids. I spend so much time talking to kids of former NFL players who, you can tell, had a very different life than they should have because dad started becoming a very mean guy and wasn’t able to work or wasn’t able to control himself. And then the other part of it that people don’t realize is that so much of that money goes to the insurance companies because, when people have long term care issues, they pay back the insurance first. If you boil it down to: how much is a year’s quality of life worth? Families are getting pennies on the dollar. It could be so much better. The other part of it is that it doesn’t actually cover CTE, which is the whole driving issue.
Do you think there’s a way for the science around CTE to progress to the point that it becomes an objective diagnosis that could be covered by the NFL concussion settlement?
There’s two sides to that. The science will advance to the point where doctors are diagnosing during life with a known level of accuracy. That will happen in the next five years. The issue is that to change the settlement both the NFL and NFLPA would have to agree, and I suspect that the NFL will just not agree to anything because it will cost them more money.
What do you imagine that federal legislation about concussions for the professional and amateur levels could look like?
I think the most obvious thing is that we have federal laws to protect children from harm, and I think this would fit squarely into that. As we get people to better understand how many hits it takes to get CTE and what’s putting you at risk about those hits, it would be fair to say that you can’t hit children and give them CTE. That would be a fair law. The question is: how exactly do you structure it? I think we’ll see it at states first, just as we see concussion protocols, to test it out. When I was testifying in California, I said that you guys just banned indoor tanning for children under eighteen. They can still tan outdoors. It didn’t solve the skin cancer issue, but it was very obvious that there was more harm than benefit for this. You can argue the same thing about a five year old getting hit in the head 500 times when there are perfectly good sports that don’t hit them in the head. When it gets down to the professional leagues and employment law, it gets a little sticky. Protecting kids is something that we can all get behind.
If we have young people taking things seriously with their brains, they wouldn’t play the sports the way they play them now. You’re not old enough to understand this until you’re in your early twenties, and at that point you have one chance to make money or else you’ve wasted your life. So, everyone goes and makes the money and says, “I’ll roll the dice.” It’s sad to watch.