For the Players
For the game

Concussion expert addresses RPA Players’ Board

October 21st, 2013

The treatment and care of concussion related injuries is viewed as one of the most important and topical issues in rugby to date. With this in mind, Restart invited leading concussion specialist, Chris Nowinski, to speak at the recent RPA Players’ Board meeting.

Nowinski, a former college American football player and ex-professional WWE wrestler, is co-founder and Executive Director of the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston – a non-profit organisation dedicated to solving the sports concussion crisis through education, policy and research. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis.

“There has been a dramatic change in the United States over the past five years on how we handle concussion and you can see there is a high level of awareness here in the UK, particularly in rugby. The aim of my presentation was to give players the information I wish I’d had whilst still active as a professional sportsman. I want to try and help build a path for the future which allows players to remain healthy while playing the game, but also keeps the game healthy.”

Nowinski’s interest in concussion comes from bitter personal experience. During a wrestling match in 2003 he suffered a serious concussion, but due to a lack of understanding about the condition he was not honest about his symptoms and continued to wrestle. As a result of this he developed ‘Post-Concussion Syndrome’ and was subsequently forced to retire.

He used the time he had with the RPA Players’ Board to give them an insight into the research he and his team at Boston University have been undertaking. In 2008 SLI partnered with Boston University School of Medicine to found the Centre for the study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the first research centre in the world dedicated to the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with brain trauma.

The presentation focused on the key message of educating players, coaches and medics about the dangers of concussion and how to recognise the symptoms of the condition. He gave examples of a number of former NFL players who had suffered repeated blows to the head and how he believed this had affected them in later life.

“It is critical to educate athletes about concussion. I look back and think I was 24-year-old college graduate and I didn’t know what a concussion was. Evidence suggests that a great deal of athletes don’t really understand what the condition is unless you sit them down and extensively educate them. Most athletes only speak up about an injury if there is pain or blood, or when the physio can help them, and so a number of people have ignored the symptoms and have been playing through concussion. Everybody around the players needs to be educated – referees, coaches and medical teams – to ensure this doesn’t happen.”

Nowinski’s presentation to the players was ahead of the forthcoming Rugby Concussion Conference at Twickenham Stadium on 7 November, where The RPA, RFU and Premiership Rugby will meet to discuss the current concussion guidelines and offer recommendations for the future management of concussion and concussion education in rugby.

RPA Group CEO, Damian Hopley, said: “Chris’s in depth presentation on the long term effects of concussion was enthralling. His experiences as a former ‘no fear’ College footballer and professional WWE wrestler gave the RPA Players’ Board a clear message about the importance of education as the best possible approach to CTE risk management going forward.

“The Board shares Chris’s passion that long term player welfare must be the key priority for the game, and we are looking forward to sharing this information across our members and working closely with the game’s governing bodies in delivering the best practice for all rugby players going forward.”

Nowinski ended his presentation by passing on a key message to the players: “You need to become your own advocate and recognise you only get one brain for the rest of your life and you don’t have to sacrifice it for sport. We want people to feel comfortable recognising the condition and to support their team-mates and not let them play through concussion. The most important message is learning about how to respect your brain and to take care of yourself.”