In the Wake of Dave Duerson’s Death, Chris Nowinski Gravely Warns That 50 Percent Of High School Football Players Will Get A Concussion


In the Wake of Dave Duerson’s Death, Chris Nowinski Gravely Warns That 50 Percent Of High School Football Players Will Get A Concussion

The recent death of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson has again reignited the dialogue about the extreme consequences of participating in contact sports. Duerson committed suicide, and though hardships in his business and personal life could have led to his decision to take his own life, it’s generally thought that the degenerative brain disease he was suffering from a life in football were responsible for his depression. Enter Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Sports Legacy Institute and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.  Duerson asked that his brain be donated  (in a text shortly before committing suicide) for research purposes, and it will be Nowinski and his team of specialists that will analyze his brain in an attempt to further the research about the dangerous links between repeated head trauma and chronic brain disease later in life.

Nowinski joined KFNS in St. Louis to talk about the death of Dave Duerson, how families are generally cooperative about donating their loved one’s brains to research, his thoughts on the NFL potentially going to an 18-game schedule, whether improved helmets could make a significant difference, how head trauma is linked to depression later in life, the likelihood that concussions will lead to degenerative brain disease later in life, and what the odds are that a high school player will suffer a concussion during his playing career.

On the overview of Duerson’s death:

“Dave Duerson used to play for the Bears and was actually a player I grew up watching. I guess he had not been doing well lately and had had a lot of conversations with his family lately that he had the disease Chronic Degenerative Encephalopathy, a chronic brain disease caused by repetitive trauma. I don’t have all the details but I guess at the end of the week last week he decided to take his own life and had confirmed with them prior to doing it, his wishes to have his brain donated to research so that whatever we find could help make the sport safer for kids.”

How it’s not necessarily clear if the brain trauma is what caused him to take his life or if it was other factors like losing his home and failed business enterprises that might have been responsible:

“Yeah you can never tie an act to a specific disease. The reality is we’ll never know what pushed him over the edge.”

On if families are generally cooperative about donating the brains of loved ones to research:

“Well over 25 families of former NFL players have donated to our research the brains of their loved ones. And we have over 65 cases overall of all types of athletes. It’s been quite remarkable. It’s been a lot of cases in a short period of time, so it’s been remarkable the way the country has responded to this research that says we may have been handling the issue of brain trauma in sports incorrectly and we need to figure it out quickly not only to prevent future kids from going down the safe path, but to also treat the guys that we hurt. One of four boys in this country plays contact sports growing up, and that’s a lot of brain trauma that we don’t really have an appreciation for.”

What his thoughts on potentially adding two more games to the NFL schedule:

“We don’t really have a position on the 18-game season. The reality is…the primary reason we do this work even though it’s very much focused on the NFL is to help youth sports in general. There’s a few thousand NFL players that have even ever played, and there’s millions of young people. And the other really critical aspect of this concussion research and brain trauma research is the idea of informed consent. NFL players can take risks with their bodies if they’re aware of the consequences and measures are taken. But we can’t do that with kids. We know that kids don’t reach the age of consent until 18, yet we’re exposing them to the exact same brain trauma. So the NFL and an 18-game season is something to be worked out by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, and I hope they both have in mind the consequences of brain trauma, but that’s really kind of a professional issue.”

Whether an improved helmet could potentially make a big difference with head trauma:

“I think now more than ever people are thinking about committing real resources to helmet development. We didn’t even really design helmets to prevent or help reduce the force of concussions until recently, because we didn’t really realize it was a problem. So what families also have to understand is helmets will never be the full answer; they’re an important piece of the puzzle and will be useful, but helmets will never be able to….they do a great job with linear forces — you know, straight ahead — but rotational forces when you have the head twisting on the neck like a boxer’s hook, a helmet will never be able to reduce that in any real significant way. So helmets are part of the answer, but they’ll never be the full answer.”

On if he can explain how repeated head trauma is linked to depression:

“What we’re learning is repetitive trauma is linked to this degenerative brain disease. Essentially the cells of your brain start dying while you’re an athlete.  A toxic protein starts slowing down the transmissions in the brain, killing cells. Eventually you lose enough cells in the areas of your brain that control mood and emotions, that that part of your brain starts functioning abnormally. And the reality is that some people experience euphoria and they don’t care about anything and are happy, and other people can experience depression. It just depends on which cells this destructive disease chooses to target.”

On if they know the likelihood or how rare it is for players who experience a handful of concussions to come down with the disease later in life:

“I don’t think it’s as rare as we’d like it to be. Of the 14 former NFL players that we’ve studied, 13 have had the disease. And almost all of the college athletes we’ve studied have had the disease, and we’ve found it in high school players, we’ve found it in 18 year-olds. So we really have no idea what the prevalence is, how many people are out there walking around with this. We have no idea why some people get the disease and it advances quickly, and why other people seem to have the disease don’t have the trauma or don’t have it advancing very quickly. So there’s a lot of differences, but certainly by having a lot of brain trauma and not taking care of your concussions and being kind of reckless as we have been, you certainly open the door to these problems later on. But we have a lot of work ahead of us before we figure out who’s really at risk.”

On what the odds are that high school players will suffer a concussion:

“50 percent per season. What the miracle of those studies is we used to think it was 5 or 10 percent, but when we started looking at the actual source of that data, it was all coming from athletic trainers. Well, if you’ve played the game you know you don’t always tell the trainer you have a concussion because (A) they can’t really help you and (B) you may not even realize you have the injury. There’s been a couple of smart doctors…who surveyed players directly postseason and anonymously, and then took out the word concussion from the study, and just said how many times have you been hit and experienced dizziness, confusion, seeing stars and this laundry list of symptoms. And the number came out to 50 percent per year, and some kids saying what they used to call dings and their bell rung a few times per year. If you play a few years of football you’re almost certain to have a concussion.”

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