Former Packers Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi once posited that football required “perseverance, self-denial … and respect for authority.” Lombardi’s words about the sport he defined couldn’t ring truer than in 2013.
The NFL is now defending itself against charges that player safety was ignored for decades. More than 4,500 former players took legal action against the league, alleging it concealed the long-term dangers of its sport, specifically head injuries and concussions. Players and the league settled out of court for $765 million.
The decision has implications for all contact sports, especially when players are asked to ignore or deny injury, to trust the authority of coaches and trainers, and to return to play with head trauma not readily apparent in the heat of battle. Athletes run the risk of permanent disability, depression and worse.
Chris Nowinski is no stranger to injury.
Nowinski played defensive tackle for Harvard football. While enduring the attendant hits and bruises of college football, Nowinski earned Second Team All-Ivy honors. He graduated from Harvard and took up professional wrestling, training with stars like Paul Orndorff and Stan “Killer” Kowalski before landing in WWE in 2002. As Nowinski soon found out, wrestling offered no more safety than the roughest of contact sports.
“I got a concussion summer 2003 at the Hartford Civic Center. Bubba Ray Dudley kicked me in the head,” Nowinski told Boston Public Radio. “I lied about it for five weeks through a throbbing headache and nausea and kept getting hit in the head.
“I had five years of headaches. I was sleepwalking almost every night, I was heavily sedated every night, [and had] depression, memory problems. It was rough. It was during that time I started researching how to fix myself, realized I couldn’t necessarily do that, but I could help others.”
Nowinski built a reputation in the wrestling ring with moves like the “Harvard Buster” and “Honor Roll,” but with one errant kick it all changed. Nowinski retired from wrestling, started doing research on head injury in sports, and wrote about his experience in “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis.”
Nowinski went on to co-found the Sports Legacy Institute to study concussions and brain trauma, and serves as co-director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. When asked how he viewed the NFL’s concussion settlement, Nowinski was guarded.
“$765 million is going to go very quickly, considering how many people are out there suffering with some sort of long-term care,” Nowinski said. “Everybody wants to know what the NFL knew and when, and would love to see what they would find in discovery. I think that is one of the things I’ll always now be curious about.”
Nowinski said injury is linked not only to a gladiatorial culture in sports but also to the very equipment designed to protect players.
“If you look historically at the sports we’ve added helmets to — football and ice hockey are the best examples — the games got more dangerous for the players,” Nowinski said. “Because what you did is took away their incentive not to put their head into dangerous situations because you took away pain and blood.
“The reality is, they’re not doing nearly as much for you as you think ... The real future is, we’ve got to hit them in the head fewer times. It’s a novel concept!”
Nowinski acknowledged his epiphany didn’t come soon enough to prevent residual damage.
I’m not normal. I do know that. I think I sense that there’s something going wrong in there. —Chris Nowinski
Problems start “as things you can’t really tell … small behavioral changes, personality changes, impulse control problems … maybe in another ten years my memory starts to go, and my emotional control really goes. That’s usually the course you see. So right now, hopefully my executive functioning is fine, and I can still live a normal life.”
For now, another football season is underway. The lyric voices of booth announcers carry across the living rooms of jersey-clad fans. The drama unfolds play by play. For most, the season fades imperceptibly into the dim roar of the crowd. Only one team will hoist the trophy bearing Vince Lombardi’s name in triumph. Later, they will wonder at the price they paid.