Headed for Trouble

BU scientists are renowned for their research on concussions suffered by NFL veterans. Now their studies are raising alarming questions about the true dangers of high school football.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, America has fundamentally changed the way it thinks about concussions and football. McKee and her colleagues at BU are responsible for that. Thanks to them, it has become accepted fact that concussions and repeated blows to the head lead to CTE and problems later in life.

The key development has been the unique process McKee pioneered for looking at brain tissue. By dehydrating, slicing, and dyeing samples, researchers are able to look through a microscope at a shrunken-down version of one half of the brain, instead of just a small region. The method allows the brain to be seen from different angles and with greater clarity. The process is “very time consuming and very painstaking,” McKee says. “But it enables a person who has never looked at brain sections before to say, ‘Oh, God, this is like night and day!’”

That is almost exactly what Congress said when McKee presented her research on Capitol Hill just over a year ago. For decades, NFL officials had ignored or denied the brutal effect professional football has on its participants, all but insisting that repeated blows to the head didn’t affect players’ health later in life. The league had always allowed players to return to a game after suffering concussions. But the research conducted by McKee and her BU team changed that. Soon after her Congressional testimony, the NFL owned up to the damage the game can cause and issued a memo prohibiting players from returning to a game during which they suffered a concussion.

But for Chris Nowinski, the cofounder of the Waltham-based Sports Legacy Institute, which works alongside the BU Center, the research has never really been about the NFL. The former Harvard lineman and pro-wrestling star has suffered from many past concussions, and says that younger kids have always been his “number one” priority. “The tragedy is the children who have no comprehension of the risks [of] losing brain cells and losing [their] lives on the field,” he says.

Nowinski, who has toured the country preaching concussion awareness at schools, says that focusing the spotlight on the NFL is part of a larger strategy. “The media writes about celebrities, so you have to change things at the top in football to change things in the middle,” he says.