BU’s Chris Nowinski Slams the NFL for Its Concussion Research Efforts

The NFL's donations overwhelmingly benefit league-linked doctors.

Chris Nowinski

Image Provided

Perhaps no series of events better underscores the contrast between the glitz and glamour of professional football and its dark underbelly than what transpired on Wednesday. By midweek, the hype for Super Bowl 50 was fully underway, with hoards of fans and media converging in San Francisco to catch a glimpse of Cam Newton, Peyton Manning, and the other superstars who will play in the big game Sunday.

But on Wednesday morning, Boston University researchers unveiled harrowing news about a Super Bowl hero from yesteryear. Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who passed away last summer due to colon cancer, was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease known as CTE. BU scientists have now discovered CTE in 90 out of 94 brains that deceased former players have donated to the school.

Chris Nowinski, the co-director for of BU’s CTE Center and cofounder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, has been one of the most outspoken advocates in the field of brain trauma research ever since a severe concussion ended his professional wrestling career in 2003. Nowinski, a former All-Ivy defensive tackle for Harvard University and the author of “Head Games: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” one of the earliest critiques of the way the NFL was handling head injuries, told Boston Stabler’s diagnosis is a reminder that nearly every player who steps onto the football field is putting his long-term mental health at risk.

“No position outside of kicker appears to be immune from CTE,” Nowinski says. “It’s also important to recognize players—especially from that era—may not have been quarterbacks their whole life or certainly didn’t have the protections we give quarterbacks today at the professional level.”

Nowinski, who hijacked the NFL’s health and safety summit Thursday, says that although his football fandom has been greatly diminished over the last decade, he’ll still be able to watch the Super Bowl Sunday. Given all of the head trauma awareness out there today, most NFL players know about the dangers of concussions. They possess what Nowinski refers to as “informed consent,” meaning they’re aware of the risks and have still chosen to play professionally.

The greater issue, according to Nowinski, is football at the youth level. Research shows there’s a direct correlation between the number of times a person is hit in the head and his or her chances of developing CTE. In Nowinski’s mind, the solution is to ban youth tackle football and not allow kids to play until they’re in high school.

“Only five percent of [high school players] go on to play in college and only a small percentage of those go on to play professionally,” Nowinski says. “Then, very few football players in this country would develop CTE. Four years of exposure is not going to be enough to start CTE in most people.”

But there appears to be a long way to go before dramatic changes at the youth level are enacted. In 2014, the NFL awarded USA Football a $45 million grant to expand its Heads Up Program, which teaches safe tackling techniques to young players. But like many of the NFL’s concussion research and player safety initiatives over the last couple of years, there seems to be an ulterior motive buried beneath the altruism that appears on the surface.

It’s in the league’s best interest to hook as many kids into football at an early age as possible. But Nowinski says the idea of pre-teens being able to tackle safely is a fallacy, given their lack of physical development.

“To ask football players to play before they can build upper-body strength is cruel, because you have to use your head—your head is gigantic when you’re a child,” Nowinski says. “There’s such a long list of reasons to not subject these poor kids to tackle football before high school.”

But maybe the best example of the NFL’s seeming deceit comes in the form of its funding for concussion research. Over the last three and a half years, the league has donated more than $100 million to brain research in the United States after previously denying any link between head trauma and playing football. It seems as if progress has been made, but there are questions about where the money is going.

On Thursday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported the NFL’s donations overwhelmingly benefit league-linked doctors, which caused one researcher who’s quoted in the piece, Dr. Hans Breiter of Northwestern, to compare the NFL’s industry-funded research to the work of Big Tobacco in the 1950s.

Doubt surrounding the NFL’s motivates reached an apex in December, when ESPN reported the league pulled out of funding an ambitious BU-led study that aims to track the development of CTE in living patients. The NFL gave the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health a $30 million grant in 2012, but audited FNIH financial statements describe the league’s gift as a “conditional contribution.” The NFL reportedly ordered the FNIH to not allocate its money towards the BU study because one of its researchers, Dr. Robert Stern, has expressed fervent opposition to the league’s concussion settlement with 20,000 ex-players, which will pay them up to $1 billion over the next 65 years because the NFL masked the neurological dangers of football. In a 61-page declaration filed October 2014, Stern says the settlement would deny compensation to some of the league’s most disabled ex-players.

When asked to comment, an NFL spokesman referred Boston to a statement the league released last month that says it doesn’t have any control over how the FNIH uses its contribution. But that isn’t how Nowinski sees it. To him, this episode is another example of the league’s apparent duplicity in terms of its commitment to fund unbiased research.

“The most critical element in this isn’t that the NFL pulled the money,” Nowinski says. “The most critical element is they lied multiple times and were caught lying. Therefore, there isn’t any reason any of us should believe anything they ever say again.”