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A 2000 study that surveyed 1,090 former NFL players found that more than 60 percent had suffered at least one concussion during their career.
Concussions, a type of traumatic brain injury, generally occur when the head either spins rapidly or accelerates quickly and then stops — like when a player tackles another player on the field. The National Football League and Congress have both held hearings on the head injuries, which can cause memory loss, confusion, nausea, blurred vision and long-term neurological effects, including symptoms of dementia, headaches and concentration problems.
A study commissioned by the NFL in 2009 reported that former NFL players have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other memory problems 19 times more than the normal rate for men between 30 and 49. And pathologists who have examined the brains of ex-athletes have found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological disease that patients get after sustaining repeated head injuries.
Chris Nowinski, who runs a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about concussions, explains how the head injuries continue to damage players years after they've left the field.
Nowinski knows this first-hand. After playing football at Harvard, he became a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment. His over-the-top personality and penchant for referencing his Ivy pedigree made him a superstar in the ring. In 2002, he was named the "Newcomer of the Year" by RAW Magazine and became the youngest male Hardcore Champion in WWE history.
But Nowicki's wrestling career was cut short in 2003, after he suffered at least six concussions.
"[After one] I remember looking up at the ceiling and I had no idea where I was," Nowinski tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I had no idea what we were doing and I couldn't remember what was supposed to happen next. It's scary to be with 5,000 fans and become completely distracted."
Nowinski started reading everything he could about head injuries. He soon realized concussions were a far bigger crisis than anyone realized. In 2006, his book Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, helped put the concussion issue on the NFL's radar, after he profiled several players who exhibited symptoms of neurological damage after their playing careers ended.
"Football did not react well at the beginning," he says. "The commissioner of the NFL saw this as a threat to the game. They did not want to have this conversation."
More cases changed their mind. Ted Johnson, a linebacker who helped lead the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories, suffered two concussions in four days in August 2002. When he returned to play, he received several more concussions before his playing career ended in 2005. His neurologist told The New York Times in 2007 that the 34-year-old was already "show[ing] the minor cognitive impairment that is characteristic of early Alzheimer's disease."
In 2009, Congress held hearings on the subject of brain injuries in football. After those hearings, the NFL changed some of its policies on when players could return to games after an injury and how players were allowed to hit each other on the field. But, Nowinski says, there's still more to be done.
"We can prevent them with rule changes, recognize them better and treat them better," he says. "But the bigger change in dramatically reducing how we practice the game. Seventy-five percent of hits happen in practice when no one is keeping score. If this is bad for you, we should eliminate them from practice and save hits for the game. If we did that, we would lower everyone's exposure by 50 percent."