By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor, Risk & Insurance®
A leading researcher and advocate on the subject of athletic head injuries said that he believes the tide is turning in the realm of athletic risk management.
"I am incredibly pleased, and I think real change is coming," said Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of the Waltham, Mass.-based Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to the prevention and study of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition that affects athletes who have suffered repeated concussions.
Along with several Boston-based physicians, Nowinski is also the founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at the Boston University School of Medicine.
Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler, saw his professional wrestling career ended prematurely by concussions in 2003 and has since made it his life's work to advocate on behalf of wrestlers, football players and others who, as a part of their sport or profession, run the risk of permanent brain injury.
He's been successful in getting several professional football players, including Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens, Sean Morey of the Arizona Cardinals and Lofa Tatupu of the Seattle Seahawks, to donate their brains to research.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE RISK
Just how devastating those repeated blows to the head are was perhaps most tragically played out in the life and death of Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the National Football League's legendary Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s and 1980s.
Known as "Iron Mike," Webster played on all four of the Steelers Super Bowl teams of that era and played 177 straight games between 1976 and 1986. But the post-NFL years for the native of Tomahawk, Wisc., were dark ones. Webster suffered from depression, alienation, pain and drug addiction and lived alternately out of his pickup truck or in train stations between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh before he died, broke and alone at the age of 50 in a motel room in Wisconsin in September 2002.
Other NFL players who it's now been determined have succumbed to CTE include such players as Wally Hilgenberg, who played in four Super Bowls for the Minnesota Vikings and who died at the age of 56 in September 2008, and John Grimsley, a former middle linebacker for the Houston Oilers who died from an accidental shooting, also in 2008.
The risk management community got another reminder of its exposure to this risk in late November, when Philadelphia-based La Salle University found itself on the losing end of a $7.5 million settlement in the case of Preston Plevretes, a football linebacker who suffered permanent brain injury when he collided with another player in a game against Duquesne University.
Plevetres' attorney argued that La Salle had not taken adequate measures to test and protect Plevetres after he had suffered a concussion in a previous game.
TACKLING THE ISSUE
Nowinski has argued that schools and professional sports teams in general aren't taking adequate precautions to protect athletes from injury. For years, he said, head injuries have been taken for granted as a part of the athletic culture.
But as a result of data that Nowinski and his colleagues at Boston University have collected, the NFL and other organizations are taking notice.
"Things won't be the same in 2010, and I think we will look back five years from now and see a very different game," said Nowinski.
In December, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 NFL teams stating that the NFL had altered its head-injury policy to read that a player will be prohibited from re-entering a game if he shows lapses in memory, consistent dizziness or headaches, or an inability to remember playbook assignments. Previously, a player was prohibited from re-entering a game only when he lost consciousness.
But Nowinski feels even more change is coming. For one, he thinks that the way football players practice is going to change. He said there is a consensus that football players do much more hitting in practice than is necessary.
"No. 1 on the list that people are just starting to talk about is changing how we practice," said Nowinski.
"Football is one of those sports where you hit four times as much in practice as you do in games. And every player I have talked to has indicated that all that hitting isn't necessary to make you a great player," said Nowinski.
Another proposal that might have traction? Creating age limits for full contact football. That is, that children under a certain age be limited to flag football and wait until they're older to put on the shoulder pads and the helmets.
Those images of 6-year-olds in full football regalia may be cute, but it might be a better idea to let those little brains develop further before they start getting knocked around.
Other aspects of Nowinski's 10-point plan to save football include re-evaluating rule enforcement. Currently, the NCAA is suspending players for intentional helmet-to-helmet hits. Nowinski suggests that referees have the power to immediately eject players for intentional helmet-to-helmet hits, a practice known as "spearing."
RISK MANAGERS LEADING CHARGE
Vince Yambrovich, an insurance professional who in his off hours referees high school football games and other sports in the Greater Miami Athletic Conference, thinks that risk managers, at least at the high school and college levels, will be leading the most change. But he said, everyone, including the most hard-bitten, driven coaches, will have to change the way they do things.
"Coaches will be required to learn, absorb, teach, abide by and maintain adherence to new and updated rules, policies and standards. Every person in every aspect of the game of football and its preparations, management, practices and play with have crucial responsibilities to fulfill for the advancement of player safety," Yambrovich said.
Although it has the reputation of being a profession and pursuit populated by the less than gifted mentally, football is run by administrators and coaches who possess the "get it" factor, which will bring about the necessary change, according to Nowinski.
"Like it or not, football is populated by smart people at the top levels," Nowinski said.
January 1, 2010
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