Friday, September 17, 2010

Kolb, Bradley out vs. Lions; a closer look at why the NFL is cracking down on consussions

Sports Legacy Institute's Christopher Nowinski
By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA (The Phanatic Magazine) - The quarterbacks of the Eagles' offense and defense were officially ruled out of this weekend's contest with the Lions on Friday.

Signal caller Kevin Kolb and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley are both recovering from concussions suffered in the team's opener versus Green Bay last Sunday.

Twenty years ago Kolb and Bradley would have been regarded as weak by their own teammates if they failed to suit up in the Motor City. Heck, five years ago the coaches would have still expected them to go, but the NFL has really tightened up on it's policy regarding concussions, thanks in large part to the work done by the Massachusetts-based Sports Legacy Institute.

The Sports Legacy Institute was founded by Christopher Nowinski, a former World Wrestling Entertainment performer and Harvard football player with a long history of concussions, along with  Dr. Robert Cantu in reaction to medical research that indicated brain trauma in sports had become a public health crisis.

Post-mortem analysis of the brain tissue by SLI of former contact sports athletes has revealed that repetitive brain injuries, both concussions and non-concussive blows, could lead to a neurodegenerative disease known as Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. 

Nowinski himself was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in June 2003 after getting his bell rung during a WWE match in Hartford, Connecticut. He performed for three more weeks before his symptoms became worse and he was forced to take an extended leave of absence before finally calling it quits when things hadn't cleared up a year later.

In October 2006, Nowinski released a book, Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, which chronicles his own career-ending injury, along with the dangers of concussions in football and other contact sports.

Later that year Nowinski began studying the suicide of former Eagles star Andre Waters, who shot himself at age 44. Waters had sustained several concussions over his NFL career and suffered from depression-related issues. Nowinski convinced Waters' family to allow part of his brain to be tested and Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist at the University of Pittsburgh, found that "the condition of Waters' brain tissue was what would be expected in an 85-year-old man, and there were characteristics of someone being in the early stages of Alzheimer's."

Nowinski also played an integral role in the discovery of CTE in former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who was killed in a car crash in 2004 at age 36 after a 37-mile police chase at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Julian Bailes, the Steelers' team neurosurgeon during Strzelczyk's career, told Nowinski  that Strezelcyzk's death, which was preceded by behavior some called "bipolar", was worth looking into due to its similarities to the Waters case. Nowinski eventually received permission to have Strzelczyk's brain examined for CTE and a positive diagnosis was later confirmed by two other neuropathologists.

Nowinski's work also alerted an asleep at the wheel media to the problems going on in the NFL, as well as the NHL, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and boxing. Fearing a public relations backlash, the NFL slowly implemented a much tougher policy regrading diagnosed concussions, including an examination by an independent physician not involved in any way with the team of the affected player.

Problems still exist, however.

Despite the Eagles' and NFL's insistence that Andy Reid and his staff did nothing wrong by allowing Kolb and an obviously punch-drunk Bradley to return to the Packers game, the old tough guy mentality still exists and mistakes were made.

"He [Bradley] should not have been returned to the game four minutes after being removed," Nowinski told The Phanatic Magazine in an e-mail exchange. "Whatever evaluation they gave was not thorough enough."

In my view, much like its steroid policy, the NFL's tougher stand on concussions is more of a public relations strategy designed to fend off alert media members asking questions -- it's not about the health and well being of its athletes.

Nowinski wasn't that critical but believes there is room for improvement.

"NFL medical leaders have said that it was the meticulous research of Dr. Ann McKee,  the director of the neuropathology laboratory for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers that recently published a study linking Lou Gehrig's death to concussions, that opened their eyes to the depth of the problem, and having been in those meetings. I think that changed their minds about the risks of brain trauma," Nowinski said.

"It's a strong policy. Based on the Eagles game, however, I'd now like to see an automatic 15 minute no return-to-play when a player shows any signs or symptoms of concussion. If a similar situation happens again, we made need to upgrade to having an independent doctor on the sideline."

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