Lecture focuses on head trauma among athletes

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The Honor and Conduct Councils and Dean of Students Office, hosted Concussion Legacy Foundation Co-Founder and CEO Chris Norwinski as he discussed CTE and issues related to concussions. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Thursday, Sept. 19, the Honor and Conduct Councils at the College of William and Mary, along with the Dean of Students Office, hosted Concussion Legacy Foundation Co-Founder and CEO Chris Norwinski as the featured speaker at the College’s Ethics Week campaign. 

Widely known for driving modern research and awareness of the concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy crisis, Norwinski discussed his own personal experience with CTEdetailed the journey of bringing CTE to the forefront of modern athletic concernand explained some of the unethical roadblocks within the athletic community that previously kept the disease in the shadows. 

Athletes, young and old, are particularly susceptible to developing CTE due to the repeated head trauma they incur while playing their respective sports. As a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestlerNorwinski spoke first-hand of the dangers of repeated sports-related head trauma and their lack of proper diagnosis and treatment 

“What I’ve learned the hard way is that when you get out into the real world and there’s a lot of money involved; we’re not all playing by the same codes and lying and cheating has been stealing brain health from a lot of people,” Norwinski said. 

“What I’ve learned the hard way is that when you get out into the real world and there’s a lot of money involved; we’re not all playing by the same codes and lying and cheating has been stealing brain health from a lot of people,” Norwinski said. 

Though he had been on the receiving end of head trauma for the entirety of his athletic career, Norwinski received his final, career-ending blow during a June 2003 wrestling matchDespite trouble thinking, dizziness, headaches and nausea  all classic symptoms of a concussion  he continued to wrestle and work out strenuously.  

It was not until Norwinski met Robert Cantu  the eighth doctor he sought assistance from  that his head trauma was identified as a concussion, which prompted his realization that he had experienced multiple undiagnosed concussions over the course of his athletic career.  

“Dr. Cantu taught me three things: one, none of us knew what a concussion was back in 2003, and so we were all playing through them; number two, had I just taken a few days or weeks off after each one, I probably wouldn’t have this cumulative brain damage that has now ended my career and gone on to impair my life for the last sixteen yearsand ‘hey, there might be some long-term effects but we don’t really know that much about them right now so just be forewarned,’” Norwinski said.  

After learning about the severity of concussion related brain trauma, Norwinski was alarmed by his and the athletic community’s lack of awareness. In response, he set out to research the topic and went on to write “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis,” his critically acclaimed book which investigates CTE in sports.  

While researching the history of concussions in professional sports, he discovered an awareness of concussions, investigated their severity and saw the importance of sidelining athletes who had incurred serious head trauma dating back to the early 20th century.  

“This has just been one of those things that would peak its head out, and then get stomped down by someone who didn’t want to deal with these players,” Norwinski said. They wanted them to go back in that same day if they needed them to win the game.”   

“This has just been one of those things that would peak its head out, and then get stomped down by someone who didn’t want to deal with these players,” Norwinski said. They wanted them to go back in that same day if they needed them to win the game.”   

Norwinski identified the National Football League as the most prominent organization responsible for the historic lack of CTE and concussion related sports injury diagnoses and proper treatment at both youth and adult levels 

In order to convince the NFL and other prominent athletic organizations of CTE and concussion related trauma’s prevalence and legitimacy, Norwinski partnered with Cantu to conduct research on the disease by creating the Concussion Legacy Foundation. This includes arranging the post-mortem examination of numerous brains  including but not limited to former players and athletes like Andre Waters and Tom McHal— many of which were ridden with CTE.  

“We’re going to keep going with these brain studies because that’s what’s going to prove to the world that concussions are an invisible injury, they’re hard to see, it’s really hard to convince people that they have long-term effects, but this is a disease … that is very obvious, so maybe that’s how we’ll convince everyone that these hits to the head are bad,” Norwinski said.  

His research has since prompted the NFL to amend their former denial of the concussion and CTE crises existence and, along with numerous other athletic organizations, implement new policies to protect athletes against developing CTE and other head traumas 

However, according to Norwinski, these policies still have a long way to go. He emphasized that CTE is not just exclusive to the United States, football or men. It is a disease prevalent across a wide range of sports worldwide, and as they continue to perform more research, hopefully policy changes will be made worldwide.  

“We have a lot to do to solve this problem, and we’re not getting a lot of help, but we’re pretty proud of where we’ve gotten,” Norwinski said.  

“We have a lot to do to solve this problem, and we’re not getting a lot of help, but we’re pretty proud of where we’ve gotten,” Norwinski said.  

Norwinski concluded his presentation with discussion of how the CTE and concussion crisis can be lessened, if not solved. In addition to the research and patient-family services work that the Concussion Legacy Foundation does, they hope to changthe culture surrounding head trauma in an effort to minimize undiagnosed concussionsAccording to Norwinski, many athletic concussions continue to go undiagnosed because athletes are not always capable of identifying their injuries as concussions or choose to ignore them in fear of potential consequences.  

“The reality is when you get a concussion, the thing that’s supposed to help you figure out if you got a concussion is damage,” Norwinski said. “So at either moment you don’t know you have a concussion, and if you do know you have a concussion, you’re starting to think ‘well, am I going to lose my spot?’ or ‘well, does the team need me right now?’ and those are real, organic, natural thoughts.” 

As a solution to this problem, Norwinski suggested holding teammates accountable for each other by encouraging them to look out for potential injuries and reporting when a fellow teammate has experienced a significant head trauma or exhibits concussion symptoms.   

Another solution he posed is limiting the amount of head trauma young athletes are exposed to. Like with smoking and lung cancer, the likelihood of CTE development is significantly higher when repeated head trauma begins at a younger age, so this proactive approach would hopefully decrease CTE’s prevalence among athletes. 

“We are really hoping that really quickly we can stem the tide of people developing CTE by just changing what we do with kids, and I can’t believe how hard it is to do,” Norwinski said. “…Sports are slowly changing, but they’re not going to get there fast enough.” 

Sara Waugh ’21 found Norwinski’s discussion of the CTE and concussion crisis enlightening, particularly when he discussed the importance of policy changes regarding head trauma among child athletes. 

“More awareness needs to be out there for youth sports, Waugh said. “I thought he did a really good job. He was really informative and he’s clearly spent a lot of time looking into the research and it shows.” 

Jenna Smith ’19 was similarly surprised to learn about the lack of CTE awareness and prevention among youth athletics.  

“It was eye opening how common it is and how easy it is to get,” Smith said.  It is kind of crazy how they don’t actually talk about it a lot, especially in high school and little league.”