Why Concussion Legacy co-founder Nowinski wants youth tackle football eliminated
The question confronts parents every year: Should I let my son or daughter play tackle football?
Chris Nowinski has some thoughts on the topic. The Arlington Heights native is co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and has led the fight to study brain injuries in athletes and the long-term effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
After playing football at Hersey High School and Harvard University, Nowinski became a pro wrestler. He was forced to retire after suffering a debilitating concussion in the ring in 2003. Nowinski spoke to Mike McGraw to discuss the state of youth and high school football:
DH: So what was your personal experience? When did you start playing football?
CN: "One of my friends played for the Arlington Cowboys and I asked my mom if I could play in seventh grade and she said, 'Maybe next year.' Then in eighth grade I had surgery and couldn't play. So I didn't play until high school."
Q: Looking back, what kind of feelings do you have about your football career?
A: "It was something I enjoyed and it was also something I think about wishing I didn't do it. I think I learned a lot of great lessons, I think I became a much tougher person. But the question is, at what cost? Besides whatever's going on in my brain, which is probably, based on certain evaluations, not a good thing. My neck is not in great shape, so I have problems and that's an underdiscussed issue, neck degeneration. That's not great.
"So I don't know. It all depends. If I was able to stay where I am today, then I probably got more benefits than problems. But if you ask me in 20 years, if I'm no longer able to work and really hard on my children and my wife because I have CTE-related problems with my temper and memory and depression and other issues, then I would say it was not worth it. The problem is I won't find out until too late and I have no chance to change my outcome."
Q: You are a proponent of eliminating youth tackle football. How did you land on that recommendation?
A: "What we're learning by studying the brains of former football players after they've passed away is the longer you play football, the more years you play, the greater the risk of you developing CTE. When we published studies two years ago, it showed that 110 of the first 111 NFL players we studied had CTE. And then it was a little more than 80 percent of the college players and it was just over a fifth of the players who just played through high school. So the reality is too many years of football -- and we can't exactly yet quantify how many that is -- but too many years is a problem.
"The only way you can really limit your career is to start later. Most high school football players, if you're good enough to play in college, you'll go play. If you're good enough to play in the pros, you'll keep playing. So in some ways success at football becomes punishment for your brain and for your future family."
Q: So you think flag football is a better option for kids before they reach high school?
A: "The right way to learn the skills of football is to play flag. At that age, it really should be about running and throwing and catching, but not colliding. The goal should be to hit kids in the head fewer times while their brains are developing. You look at the data on kids wearing sensors in their helmets and you find that 9-year-olds are getting hit in the head 400 or 500 times in a season, in some cases. No 9-year old deserves to get hit in the head 500 times in a season. The research is starting to show it might affect future brain resilience. It almost certainly does change the way your brain develops.
"If you could cap your kid at one season or two seasons -- which you can't -- but if you could, we wouldn't be against youth tackle football. But, unfortunately, the goal of youth tackle football is to make kids proficient at football and love the game and keep playing. If that's the case, starting at the youth level is too dangerous."
Q: Can you still enjoy watching NFL games as a fan?
A: "Yeah. I can still enjoy watching it, especially because today it's much safer than it used to be. It used to make you cringe to know that guys were getting concussions and you weren't sure if they were going to get pulled out of the game. The NFL, really driven by the players association, has made the game dramatically safer.
"So I can still sit here and watch it and enjoy the beauty of the game. I also know they're hitting way less in practice at the NFL level; they've got 30 medical professionals at the game to look out for them. So there's no ethical quandary. But I would never be able to enjoy 10-year-olds playing tackle football."
Q: Obviously, the concern for head injuries stretches beyond football.
A: "The concussion that ended my career was professional wrestling. The question is, what was the contribution of all the undiagnosed concussions I had in high school and college? The answer is, I don't know. But I certainly know that I had a decent number of concussions in high school and college, I just never mentioned it to anybody.
"It didn't matter to me when the sky would go orange or I'd blackout and forget the last play or had a throbbing headache after a considerable number of games. I never thought that was anything abnormal or worth mentioning."